Cleaning Up Krome

Lawyers Tina Fassnacht and Stacy Taeuber are all-purpose advocates at the West Dade immigrant camp

Dhine is confined to a wheelchair because of a herniated disk, which is also the reason he is at Krome. On April 20, 1998, he was transferred from an Arizona detention center to the camp for back surgery. Eight months later he has yet to receive treatment. Wearing a yarmulke perched atop a cascade of dark curls, he wheels feverishly through the camp complaining, cajoling, and joking with guards and detainees alike.

Dhine, an articulate and intelligent 36-year-old who speaks nine languages, is a steady source of referrals for the two lawyers and a constant critic of camp conditions. (Stubbs has taken to holding weekly meetings with Dhine, which the OIC jokingly calls Dhine days.) "We have worked well together," the inmate says of Fassnacht and Taeuber. His activism has occasionally exasperated officials and angered some guards. "Everything has been confrontational with him because he stands up for other people," explains Fassnacht.

The focus of Dhine's outrage on this Thursday is Krome's infirmary. Until recently the camp had a reputation for providing excellent medical care both in its clinics and through a program that allows detainees treatment at area hospitals. Detention centers in more remote parts of the country send patients to Krome for treatment. (The INS operates nine centers like Krome and contracts out another seven.) Lately though, with the help of Dhine and the two lawyers, allegations of mistreatment and unhygienic conditions have been reported. Detainees have even criticized Larkin Community Hospital, where several patients have been sent.

On November 3 Dhine contends he was left in a storage closet for several hours while awaiting treatment at Larkin. Several other inmates have also complained about the hospital, alleging they were given only one meal per day, had to wait hours for attention, and were segregated from the general population. Hospital administrators deny the charges, saying that detainees receive much-coveted private rooms and the same high standard of care as all patients.

Today Dhine is scheduled to go to Larkin for surgery and he is in a panic. Early that morning a Jamaican detainee named Ashley Anderson, who suffered from a variety of infirmities including sarcoidosis -- a mysterious malady that inflames tissue in the lungs and other organs and is fatal in only five percent of cases -- died at Larkin from the disease. Anderson arrived at Krome in July 1998 with festering bedsores that worsened at the clinic. Krome staff injured Anderson, who was overweight, when they tried to move him from his wheelchair. In addition Dhine says the Jamaican went for long periods without being bathed. The INS refused Fassnacht's request to see Anderson at the clinic. His condition worsened until he was transferred to Larkin on October 7. On November 17 she asked to see him at Larkin. Two days later Anderson died. "He was a very ill man," explains Dr. Jack Michel, Larkin president and CEO. "This was not someone who was up and walking around and then just dropped dead."

Dhine insists he won't go to Larkin until he has more information about what the doctors' plans for him include. He and Anderson were close. "I had a good connection with him," he says. "I believe it was a wrongful death."

Fassnacht tries to persuade Dhine not to reject treatment. But she can do little beyond listen to his concerns. "I tried to calm him down," she says wearily after the interview.

After finishing with Dhine, Fassnacht returns to the small room she shares with Taeuber and FIAC paralegal Serge Fleurimond, a 46-year-old Haitian immigrant who came to the United States in 1984. Fleurimond is very protective of the two women. Fluent in Creole and Spanish, he works with many asylum applicants, allowing the lawyers to concentrate on other areas.

As Fassnacht enters the office, automatic-weapon fire from a nearby shooting range, the Muzak of Krome, crackles in the background. The 30-year-old Fassnacht had some idea of camp conditions when she joined the project. As a third-year student at St. Thomas Law School in North Miami in 1996, she worked in an immigration clinic and occasionally interviewed clients at Krome. She enjoyed the work, much to the chagrin of her parents. Fassnacht had originally planned a career in business, but abruptly decided to enroll in law school instead. Her upbringing in the small farming community of Montgomery, New York, where her parents run a catering concern, is far removed from the human suffering of detention centers and the maddening INS bureaucracy.

"In the beginning [FIAC Director Cheryl Little] said I was naive to expect that people would act in a decent way," she recalls.

The attorneys' workspace is not much of an office: about eight-feet wide by twenty-feet long. It is the largest of the four attorney visitation rooms located across the hall from Krome's lobby. The office is divided in half by a wooden table that separates the detainees from the lawyers. Each side has its own door. The walls are padded and the ceiling is foam. Occasionally when the immigrants' clamors for help has overwhelmed her, Fassnacht gently bangs her head against the wall. In a corner on the attorneys' side of the room is a black file cabinet with a printer and fax machine on top. Packets of Ibuprofen, mints, and antibacterial lotion litter the empty space between the devices. It's a small universe, but it didn't come without a fight.

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