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.

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Elise Ackerman