A Prisoner of Circumstance

Rachel Better never worried about her stateless status until the INS locked her up. Then it was too late.

On February 6, 1996, she was transferred to the Krome Service Processing Center. "When I got there and I told them I was German, everyone said, 'Oh, it will be a couple of weeks and you'll be home.' If I really had been German, I would have been home."

Rachel is telling her story in a visiting booth at the Monroe County Detention Center. This is the third correctional institution she has been in since entering Krome ten months ago. The moves have taken a toll: Her pale skin has an unhealthy sheen. She speaks calmly but readily breaks into tears. "I'm feeling so at the mercy of these people," she says. "Exposed to malice, arbitrariness, bureaucracy, more helpless and alone than ever."

Dressed in prison blue, Rachel appears fragile. To add to her discomfort, she must make do with reading glasses; her regular glasses broke months ago and she hasn't been able to replace them. Profoundly near-sighted, she's had to grow accustomed to the blur. The INS says their failure to provide glasses was an oversight and claims it is currently arranging for a new pair.

Rachel has no confidence that the INS will follow through. Her experience in their custody has made her cynical.

Shortly after she arrived at Krome, the INS contacted the German consulate requesting a travel document. Meanwhile, Rachel asked her family in Mannheim to complete the paperwork required by the city government. (In Germany passports must be approved by municipal governments, and Rachel is legally a resident of Mannheim.) Understanding that the formalities might take some time, Rachel began studying Italian. She asked a friend to send her J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. "We didn't consider Krome a problem, just an inconvenience," she recalls.

Months passed. Rachel was transferred to the Fort Lauderdale jail for a month to alleviate overcrowding at Krome. In April the German consulate informed the INS that Rachel was not entitled to a travel document because she is not a German citizen; she was only a refugee. Stefan Schneider, deputy consul of the German consulate in Miami, says German privacy laws prevent him from commenting on Rachel's case.

Rachel's family was stymied in their appeals to the Mannheim Town Council. Antonia Better, Rachel's mother, says that local bureaucrats claimed Rachel had no right to ask for a German travel document. "They said, 'We cannot take care of [Rachel] because certainly you have known for many years that she has been Polish.' Imagine!" Mrs. Better says she believes the problem inheres in the prejudices of one anti-Semitic official. "But it is so terrible over here. You cannot go and point the finger at them and say you are an anti-Semite. They will take you to court. But it is the truth."

Mrs. Better has vigorously battled the vestiges of German anti-Semitism for a long time now. Years ago she berated the public school teacher who persisted in grilling the seven-year-old Rachel about her attendance at church, though the child's Judaism was no secret. The questions stopped. She raised hell about a teacher, a former Nazi, who had been harassing one of Rachel's brothers. The teacher was transferred. Fifteen years ago, when one of Rachel's brothers applied for citizenship, he was given a hard time by one official. He protested and received his papers.

Proper documents for Rachel, however, remain elusive. Mrs. Better begins to cry as she relates her fruitless attempts to sway the local bureaucracy. "Excuse me," she sniffs. "I can hardly talk about this any more. It is so terrible for Rachel. My daughter is suffering over there and she could have been free since last February."

An appeal to the Israeli government for a document was also futile. On April 11 an Israeli consular official sent a letter to the INS stating "the fact that Ms. Better was born in Israel does not make her an Israeli citizen." Dan Haezrachy, the Israeli deputy consul based in Miami, says only Jews and Israeli Arabs who are born in Israel automatically become citizens. Rachel would not technically be considered Jewish because her mother never formally converted to Judaism, even though both Rachel and her mother identify themselves as Jews.

Haezrachy suggests that Rachel go to Israel directly to establish her citizenship there, ignoring the fact that it is impossible for her to travel anywhere without valid documents. "She has to prove family connections and start the whole process," Haezrachy asserts. "The only problem is she cannot prove her identity. Technically, if I asked her if she was a Jew now, she would have to prove it, because her story is a unique one."

Rachel has never attempted to claim Israeli citizenship. As a stateless German, she visited her family members in Israel three times. Her father used to travel to Israel for Passover each year. Israel's unexpected rejection is deeply upsetting. "Okay, what would actually be proof that I am Rachel Better and my father is Bernard Better and my mother is Antonia Better? If I give them my passport?" Hysteria edges into her voice.

Actually, both her German travel document and her Israeli birth certificate are probably insufficient, Haezrachy says. Rachel needs to submit an Israeli picture ID, along with a letter explaining the circumstances of her birth, why her parents left Israel, why she is seeking citizenship, why she lacks current documents, et cetera. That material would be evaluated by the Israeli Ministry of Internal Affairs, which may deny her application if she is considered a threat to the public because of her murder conviction.

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