A Prisoner of Circumstance

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

An INS spokesman says that the "INS determines appropriate custody conditions." Rachel wasn't returned to Krome because the female dormitory "is not designed for this type of detainee. During her previous stay at Krome she did not adjust to the environment," he states. The INS maintains that Rachel is not hampered in working on her case because "her attorneys have routine and regular contact with the INS and the court as necessary."

Of course, when Rachel wrote the letter to her deportation officer, she had no attorney and no way of retaining one. When Cheryl Little and Joan Friedland fortuitously met Rachel during their tour, she had been held by the INS for eight months. "She seemed completely traumatized; she really seemed to have lost hope," Little recalls. "I've heard a lot of compelling stories, but there seemed to be so many different things that were issues in her case."

The lawyers learned that Rachel had not been receiving proper medical care at the jail. While she was serving her sentence, her breast cancer recurred. She underwent a mastectomy while she was in prison and had been ordered to get follow-up mammograms every six months. She was due for another mammogram in the spring of 1996, a few months after she was turned over to the INS. Nevertheless, a year had passed, and her requests for a mammogram had been ignored. The lawyers were also disturbed that the psychological counseling Rachel had been receiving once a week at Krome stopped when she got to Fort Lauderdale.

Little's first act was to send a letter to Terry Nelson, acting chief operating officer of Krome, requesting that he allow Rachel to return to the detention center so she could have proper medical care and could resume her efforts for her deportation.

Instead of moving Rachel back to Krome, however, the INS transferred her to the Monroe County Detention Center on Stock Island on October 27. Neither psychological counseling nor mammograms are available there, Little observes. "It's hard for me to think this was a good-faith effort to improve her situation, because it obviously made things worse," Little fumes.

In Monroe County, Rachel has no connection to her few friends in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. While she was in prison, she became close to Rabbi Harold Richter of the Jewish Federation of South Broward. Richter continued to visit her while she was at Krome and at the Fort Lauderdale City Jail, but he says it is too far to drive down to Key West to see her. "She is like the quintessential wandering Jew," Richter comments. "It's terrible."

Little and Friedland have made the three-and-a-half hour drive to the Monroe County Detention Center several times in the past three months. It is the only way they can speak to Rachel privately. Their office phones are answered by an automated operator, which does not accept collect calls, and Rachel cannot dial their 800 number from the jail phones. In order to talk to her attorneys, Rachel must ask a friend to arrange a three-way call.

Rachel says she does not care about the inconvenience, that Little and Friedland have given her hope, even when their news is bad. "I am going to get through this," she promises. She has been thinking about one of her father's anecdotes from Auschwitz. "He was there with a guy who was very fat, who always whined that he wasn't going to make it. My father always said, 'I'm going to get through this even if it takes ten years.' They knocked out his teeth with a rifle butt and he got typhoid. But he survived." The overweight man died, Rachel adds. "To me, it's the same attitude. No one is doing me any physical harm. It's a matter of nerves." Rachel steels herself for disappointment.

Earlier this month Little contacted the German consulate. "They said their refusal had nothing to do with Rachel's criminal conviction but was based on the fact that 'she abandoned her German residency when she took up residency in the United States.'" Little repeats this claim, incredulously.

On January 14 the attorney sent a letter to the consulate pointing out that "Better's failure to return to Germany has been entirely involuntary." The consulate called Little to clarify its position. "For a moment I was actually excited," Little remembers. "I thought finally we were going to hear some good news." The consulate's response: Rachel was Polish; Little should call the Polish government.

Grzegorz Dlugi, the Polish consul general based in Washington, D.C., says that Rachel is not a Polish citizen. Poland bases citizenship on the paternal bloodline. Rachel's father would have had to claim Polish citizenship after the war in order for Rachel to be Polish.

In a January 11 letter asking authorities for Rachel's release and return to Germany, Bernard Better points out that he became a German citizen in 1984. "I am paying her insurances for health, pension, and unemployment," he writes, adding that Rachel not only has worked all of her life in Germany but owns a three-room apartment in Mannheim. "I own apartment houses and other real estate and financially I am well off," he continues. "Her family, and I in particular, will very well be able to support her sufficiently after her release in the U.S.A., but our greatest concern is her return to us."

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