A Prisoner of Circumstance
When the lawyers first saw Rachel Better, she was on a cot at the Fort Lauderdale City Jail, hunched over a book. The small blond woman was huddled into herself, oblivious to her cellmates' noisy fraternizing and the blaring television. "She just looked so desperate and forlorn and forgotten," remembers Cheryl Little, the executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), who was touring the jail on October 9 with Joan Friedland, another FIAC attorney.
Rachel was not an inmate. She was an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detainee who had been transferred to Fort Lauderdale from the Krome Service Processing Center, the INS detention center located off the Tamiami Trail on the eastern fringe of the Everglades. Even without hearing Rachel's story, Little sensed that something was wrong. Observing her through the cell bars, Little made a mental note to try to speak with Rachel when the tour concluded.
The two lawyers were searching for plaintiffs to join a nationwide class action lawsuit seeking to improve conditions at INS detention facilities. They were particularly concerned with access to medical care and legal assistance. It was difficult enough for detainees held at Krome to maintain contact with their attorneys or to independently tend to their cases in immigration court. The obstacles at Krome -- among them restricted phone usage, unreliable mail service, poor communication with deportation officers, and a remote location -- are exacerbated at county jails.
When Little pulled Rachel aside from a group of detainees later that afternoon, the attorney explained that neither she nor Friedland could offer legal help to individuals, but if Rachel wanted to tell her story, Little was willing to listen.
The two women sat down in a corner of the visiting room, and Rachel sketched out her predicament. The 47-year-old woman was trying to return to Germany after completing a three-year prison sentence for killing a boyfriend who had battered her throughout their relationship. Because of bureaucratic befuddlement about her nationality, however, her deportation had been postponed and she was being held indefinitely by the INS. The problem? Rachel technically held no passport.
Rachel's father Bernard, who is Jewish, was born in the Polish town of Auschwitz and had survived the Nazi death camp there. She herself was born in Israel, but the family returned to Germany when Rachel was less than a year old. She had grown up without ever giving serious consideration to her anomalous status, much less to applying for citizenship. Until now her life had been indistinguishable from that of any other German citizen, she said. The only difference was that her travel document, which was identical in appearance to a German passport, described her as stateless. The document expired while she was in prison, and the German government refused to renew it. She was a woman without a country.
To no avail, Rachel had asked the INS to transfer her back to Krome, where she could make the necessary phone calls to straighten out her status. "I feel totally marooned here," she said, her voice becoming unsteady and tears welling up in her eyes. "You'd think they'd want me to return to Krome. What they are doing to me -- isolating me like this -- is counterproductive."
Little agreed. At that moment Rachel's story seemed straightforward. Rachel had paid her price to society and deserved a chance to get on with her life. "I remember thinking, 'My God, someone has to help this woman,'" Little says, recalling the moment she decided to take the case. One of Miami's best-known immigrant advocates, Little is accustomed to battling the INS. She has fought for the rights of Haitian refugees, defended migrant farm workers, and been one of the leaders in combating efforts to pass a local version of California's infamous anti-immigrant Proposition 187. Rachel's case was easy -- she just wanted to go home.
Months later, after Rachel's story had expanded to include three continents, two wars, and harrowing episodes of persecution and abuse, the possibility of going home would become increasingly remote. Rachel remains locked up -- rejected by two foreign governments and nearly forgotten by the INS.
Rachel's lack of citizenship and the details of her murder conviction do not necessarily explain her plight. After World War II, stateless persons were relatively common in many European countries. Germany and Poland, for instance, defined nationality according to bloodline, rather than birthplace, and so statelessness could be passed from parent to child. That is what happened to Rachel.
When Bernard Better was released from the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945, he did not know what citizenship to claim. Although he was born in Poland, he believed that his father, a well-to-do Jewish merchant, was Austrian. But he couldn't be sure. The family had spoken German at home, and Bernard had attended German schools. He could have been German, Austrian, or Polish. Relatives who could have cleared up the confusion were dead.
Attempting to reassemble what remained of his family, Rachel's father, like many other war refugees, started looking for other survivors. His quest took him to Straubing, a small Bavarian town on the Danube River and the home of his future wife Antonia. Although her family was not Jewish, they had resisted Nazi barbarity during the war. Rachel's grandfather was a Dutch socialist who had been sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Her grandmother, a Catholic, was a midwife who turned her Straubing home into a maternity hospital during the war and provided care to displaced persons and Jews.
Bernard and Antonia fell in love and married. In 1948 they decided to move to Palestine. While still in Germany, they joined the Haganah, the clandestine Jewish group that was the foundation for the Israeli army. They arrived in Israel as part of Aliyah Bet, the underground effort to smuggle Jews into Palestine in defiance of the British blockade. The British mandate to govern Palestine had just expired when Rachel's parents landed in the the newly declared state of Israel, then in the thick of the first Arab-Israeli war. Bernard was immediately drafted and served in an anti-tank unit on the Egyptian front until January 1949, when a cease-fire was declared.
He later worked as a police officer at the airport and the port of Jaffa. Rachel's mother says the family would have remained in Israel were it not for her crippling arthritis, a disease Antonia contracted in her early teens. The humid Mediterranean climate made life unbearable for her, and she returned with Rachel to Straubing in November 1949. Bernard followed soon after.
Rachel's two brothers and four sisters were born in Straubing, where Rachel grew up. She had spent almost her entire life in Germany by the time she met Bertram Mies at a party in August 1988. He was 38, tall, muscular, and good-looking. He appeared to be prosperous. She was 39 and single. They moved in together after a whirlwind courtship of only two weeks.
The relationship was unstable from the start. Rachel describes Bertram as alternating between extreme displays of affection and abuse. Statements from friends, relatives, and colleagues in Germany recount numerous instances in which Bertram is alleged to have physically or emotionally abused Rachel in the presence of other people. He purportedly pushed her through a glass door, severing her Achilles tendon. Later, while she was hobbling about on crutches, a friend claims he saw Bertram strike her to the ground. He also heard him threaten to throw her out a window.
Rachel's sister Andrea says Bertram threw flower pots at her and Rachel from the balcony of his office. An electrician remembers seeing Bertram kick Rachel as she lay sprawled on the floor, where she had fallen after a fight. "Ms. Better's nose was bleeding and her lips were split open," states Harald Kaufhold. "She had marks from blows on her face, her neck, and her arms. I noticed that she had older bruises here as well.... She could apparently only move in pain and had difficulty breathing. Her eyes and face were beginning to swell up. I wanted to fetch a doctor and the police, but Ms. Rachel Better would not let me. She asked me merely to call her sister."
In late 1989 the stock brokerage business Bertram owned declared bankruptcy. In April 1990 he told Rachel he had decided to move to Punta Gorda, Florida. His reasons were unclear. (After his death Rachel learned that Bertram was wanted by the international police organization Interpol for embezzling clients' money. She says his business partner is currently in jail in Germany.) That spring Rachel found out she was pregnant. She miscarried, and while in the hospital she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The pastor who attended to Rachel during that time reports that Bertram was not at all supportive. Bertram told Rachel she should be pleased with the miscarriage because he didn't want a child. He also made it clear that he wanted "a whole woman."
"At that moment, Ms. Better's world collapsed around her," states the Reverend Ms. Ulrike Johanns-Stoodt. "She had been delighted by the pregnancy, and had hoped that their child would strengthen their relationship."
Bertram repeatedly called Rachel after he moved to Florida, asking her to come visit. When she relented and arrived for a three-week vacation, he promised to marry her if she would stay. Rachel returned to Germany for further cancer treatments and began helping Bertram financially with checks for $200 a week. She moved out of her apartment, sold her furniture, and gave $10,000 she borrowed from her father to Bertram so he could purchase a fruit and vegetable stand in Punta Gorda.
In 1991 Rachel traveled to Florida twice. She kept hoping that her relationship with Bertram would improve, but being in Punta Gorda made her feel only more isolated and alone. "Bert would quarrel with her for no apparent reason," the psychological report included in the court record notes. "He blackened her eye, cut her face by breaking her eyeglasses, and was again extremely abusive both physically and emotionally. She was constantly under pressure. She had no one to talk to.... By this time, she considered her life was ruined and she did not wish to live any longer."
When Rachel returned to Germany at the end of the year, she was so traumatized that she sought professional help. At first she could barely function and spent only an hour a day working at the construction company her brothers owned in Mannheim. But by the spring of 1992, she was working a full eight hours, and she decided to go back to Florida to get personal possessions she had left behind. She promised herself she would leave if things got bad.
In a phone interview from Mannheim, her mother Antonia Better remembers talking to Rachel the night before she left. "She was sitting in my home, and she said 'Muti' -- that's the German expression for mother -- 'Maybe I look sad, but don't think that he is the same way he was before.' I said, 'Bubba' -- we call her Bubba, this is the Hebrew word for doll -- 'You are responsible for your own actions. You don't have to look for excuses. Because I don't know this man. And if you think it's okay, it's okay. But don't think you will change a man who is grown up. You will never change anyone.'"
Back in Florida, Rachel's resolve quickly weakened. The first few days had been happy, but then the arguments started. Beatings soon followed. By the day of Bertram's death, she had been living with him for more than three weeks. They had gone on a sightseeing trip to a nearby island, and they planned to meet another couple for dinner that evening. But when they got back to the apartment, the fight started.
Rachel doesn't know how the quarrel began. She says Bertram slapped her face and bent her right arm painfully behind her back, telling her that he could easily break her arms, her nose, or her back. A neighbor named Van Smith heard them fighting. He later gave a sworn statement to the police: "I remember the male saying, 'If you don't abide by my rules, I'll shoot you.'"
When Bertram let Rachel go, she ran to the corner store and called an employee at the fruit stand. This time she was really leaving. The employee accompanied her back to the apartment so she could gather up her clothes. Rachel says Bertram continued to insult and belittle her. Distraught, she opened the drawer where she had stashed her German currency and saw his gun, a .38-caliber pistol.
Rachel claims she thought the gun was unloaded. "He had always played around with this gun, saying, 'What if I would shoot you?' and I said, 'Go ahead,' and he said there were no bullets in it."
Rachel also says she had never handled a weapon before and that when she picked it up, she pointed it at the ceiling. Trying to picture the scene, she sees Bertram standing off to her side and thinks he must have stepped into the line of fire as the gun went off. She doesn't remember anything -- not even pulling the trigger or hearing the sound of the shot -- except Bertram falling to the ground. He died several hours later from a chest wound. After the shooting Rachel immediately called 911. When the police came, she confessed on the spot.
Following the advice of her attorney, Robert Bader, Rachel pled no contest to second-degree murder with a firearm. She did not attempt to argue self-defense or to claim the battered wife syndrome, though Robert Ford, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case, says he believes Rachel might have been exonerated had she gone to trial. Ford, who speaks German, heard about Bertram's alleged abuse from Rachel's sisters. "I'm no lie detector, but these people seemed pretty straightforward," he asserts.
Looking back, Rachel questions Bader's advice, especially because her witnesses were ready to fly to Florida to testify. But she felt she was forced to go along with the plea bargain. "I was kind of at his mercy because I knew nothing about the American legal system," she sighs. "I was too naive." Bader would not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Rachel was sentenced to seven years in prison. Her sister Martina, who was present in court, says the judge announced that he gave Rachel the shortest possible term under state sentencing guidelines because she was also a victim.
Rachel's jail time was reduced to just over three years: State gain-time rules then in effect automatically reduced sentences by one-third, and she was also given credit for work and good behavior. The time passed quickly. "I think I took a very philosophical point of view," Rachel comments. "I tried to make the best of it. After the nightmare I had been through with this man, when I first came to prison I felt like I was in heaven. I felt totally relieved. I had become psychically very ill, and it took me a long time to recover. Actually, it helped me to be in prison. I was taken out of the real world and put in an environment where I could concentrate on healing. I didn't have to worry about a job, a landlord. Of course there are things in prison that you don't like, but I was taken out of the problems I had before."
On April 20, 1993, after slightly less than six months in prison at the Broward Correctional Institution, Rachel was brought before an immigration judge. He asked her how she felt about being deported. "I said, 'That's fine with me. I never wanted to stay here,'" Rachel recounts. A formal deportation order was drawn up, but Rachel was told she would have to serve her sentence before the order would be executed.
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.
She realized that no travel documents would be forthcoming. "Everything was becoming so totally confusing," she recalls. "Nightmarish. Kafkaesque. We couldn't get a grip on it." She started having long bouts of weeping and became plagued with migraine headaches.
After spending a month in the Fort Lauderdale City Jail, she was sent back to Krome. She describes the women's dormitory at Krome as a noisy room resembling an army barracks, stocked with a double row of 50 metal bunk beds. There was little to do to pass the time. The atmosphere deteriorated when one group of women began holding long, boisterous prayer services.
The hubbub bothered Rachel, and she would routinely ask the others to quiet down. Her complaints antagonized the Bible thumpers. "She would ask them to be quiet and they would sing louder," says Emeline Mendez, a Jamaican detainee who was held at Krome with Rachel. "They felt that because they were religious they had the right to sing all day and all night long. Whenever she was on the phone they would start singing and singing and she couldn't hear. I said to Rachel, 'I think they are doing this deliberately.'" The fact that Rachel was Jewish didn't help matters. Mendez adds: "They would call her the devil."
Rachel took to hanging a blanket over her bunk in an attempt to isolate herself. She would stay there for days, Mendez says. Notes written on May 9 by Justin Anestin, a psychologist at Krome, describe Rachel as "living in a constant state of anxiety.... [She] appeared in distress, very depressed and despondent."
In July Rachel was told about some international organizations that might be interested in her case. At the time, the Krome administration prohibited detainees from possessing writing implements because one male detainee had reportedly stabbed another with a pen or pencil. But Rachel had a secret horde. She called the international operator and was writing down a number for a Canadian human rights group when she was spotted by a guard.
"She sees the pen and she snatches it out of my hand with a kind of malice," Rachel recalls. "That's when I lost my self-control and I ran after her and I yelled at her, 'Who are you?' I meant 'Are you even human?' But the lieutenant was standing beside her and he thought I said, 'Who do you think you are?' and he interpreted that as a threat." That afternoon Rachel was transferred back to the Fort Lauderdale City Jail. According to an INS spokesman, the move was "a result of disciplinary problems."
Unlike Krome, which has phones that accept calling cards, the Fort Lauderdale jail restricts inmates to collect calls. Rachel was therefore unable to contact the human rights organizations, nor could she speak to her family -- she was unable to dial the international operator, and the German phone system is not equipped to handle collect calls. Inmates cannot receive personal calls, so her family couldn't call her.
Mail was similarly restricted. Rachel was allowed to buy only six stamps and envelopes a week. Even more frustrating, she had to leave in storage at Krome two boxes of legal papers pertaining to her case. She was also prohibited from bringing her German-English dictionary, which she was told could be used as a weapon.
In Fort Lauderdale, Rachel found herself in a cell full of women in a drug rehab program. There were times when none of her cellmates spoke English. In desperation she turned to her diary for solace:
September 18: "I am thinking of cutting my wrists again. I've got to do it. I've got to do something. Everything is so hopeless. I see no way out. I am waiting and waiting, but to what end? What am I waiting for? I used to be so calm and patient this last half year, but now it's like something inside me just collapsed. I am sitting here in this lousy jailhouse in Florida and nobody knows how long it will go on."
October 6: " Sometimes I feel like I am emotionally paralyzed, like a hypnotized bunny, unable to make a move. Can't get myself to do anything, but my mind is running like a dynamo, round and round, faster and faster, getting frenzied. What is to become of me again? What am I supposed to do?"
Rachel wrote several letters to officials at Krome, pleading for them to be reasonable. "I can assure you that the U.S. Immigration Department will never be able to deport me as long as I am held here in Fort Lauderdale," states an October 1 letter to her deportation officer. "I cannot make any regular phone calls here. I cannot get the information, or copies, or whatever material I need. In short, I cannot work on getting me out of this country. But if I don't work on my case no one will. This is a fact.... The Krome Detention Center is acting against their own interests or that of the Immigration Department." Neither her deportation officer nor any other INS official responded to her letters. No one has contacted her about her case since her transfer to Fort Lauderdale.
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."
According to Little and Friedland, Rachel should have been released by the INS under rules that were adopted in 1996 and that allow for the release of detainees with criminal convictions. When Friedland brought this to the attention of Miami INS District Director Robert Wallis, however, he claimed that the rules did not apply because Rachel may "pose a threat to the community."
"What they are saying is that they are going to keep her in jail for the rest of her life," Friedland says angrily. She has tried to persuade Wallis to change his mind, and recently sent him a copy of a note written by Guillermo Marcovici, the psychiatrist at the Monroe County Detention Center who concluded that Rachel "does not represent a danger to self/others or property at this time or ever since her incarceration." She also points out that Rachel was described as an "outstanding" inmate by the Florida Department of Corrections.
Wallis relented last week and allowed a second psychologist to examine Rachel. (She also had a mammogram in January.) Friedland and Little hope the psychologist's report will convince Wallis to release her from INS detention. Without parole or documents from a foreign consulate, Rachel will remain in jail indefinitely.
Back at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center on Biscayne Boulevard, Little points to a row of more than 50 files lining the credenza that takes up one wall of her office. "How many other Rachel Betters are out there?" she wonders. "Joan and I have been traveling to county jails and it's another world out there. These people are thrown into a black hole. I know that Rachel's case is compelling, but there are many compelling cases. These people are locked up and forgotten."
On February 6 Rachel will have been in INS detention for one year. "It's really mean," she says on a recent morning, her reserve cracking. "I did my time in prison, and it's not my fault that I'm not able to leave the country."
"Can you imagine what would have happened to me if I had not met Cheryl and Joan?" Rachel asks. "They would have let me rot. It just hit me that if I hadn't found someone to take care of me I would have had to sit in this hole forever and ever."
Epilogue: At press time, a spokesman for the INS told New Times Rachel is being considered for parole this week.
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