Fighting for her detained husband’s life

July 19, 2018

ShaCorrie Wimbley Tunkara is a mother of two whose husband Saja is being held at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) and faces deportation. She is fighting to keep her family together and secure proper medical care for Saja, who has ongoing health conditions that aren’t being properly addressed by the NWDC. She spoke with Rebecca Anshell-Song about Saja’s case and the movement to end detentions.

COULD YOU begin by explaining Saja’s legal situation?

MY HUSBAND applied for asylum, which was ultimately denied. He did that before I ever met him and then, when we got married in 2010, I started applying for him with I-130 [a program to obtain a Green Card for a non-citizen relative]. That got denied a couple of times, even though we had an interview. Eventually, they sent him a final deportation notice for him to leave in a certain amount of time.

He didn’t go because we had financial stuff and the family. It’s just me, him and the kids here. My mom and dad are not here, I don’t have grandparents or sisters, nothing. He’s my only support system. Also, we didn’t have an attorney to give us legal advice, because everybody was astronomically high in price.

He was detained January 9 of this year. I’m sure that they knew he was still here because he was still working. They were trying to choose the right time to come and get him.

WHAT KIND of medical problems has he faced?

Saja Tunkara (center right) with ShaCorrie Wimbley Tunkara and their family
Saja Tunkara (center right) with ShaCorrie Wimbley Tunkara and their family

IN OCTOBER 2017, we found out that he had a tumor on the right side of his neck. I didn’t know how severe it was. He was scheduled for surgery for mid-January. At that time, it was fairly small, but they wanted to get it removed so it wouldn’t turn into cancer, and also so that it wouldn’t keep getting bigger. That was supposed to happen in mid-January.

He got detained January 9 and we told them about it. We asked them to get medical records. We asked them to make sure that he didn’t miss that appointment. He missed the appointment and then they claimed that they couldn’t get his medical records, so that was what was prolonging it, supposedly.

They finally did do surgery April 27 and I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know that he was there. I didn’t know what hospital he was at. I couldn’t call him. He couldn’t call me.

I did contact the jail. They wouldn’t tell me anything. I tried to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but you can never contact anybody from ICE. The 1-800 number is horrible.

I called the hospitals. They wouldn’t tell me anything. They were telling me he’s not admitted. I came to find out that even though I called [the University of Washington Medical Center] four times, that’s where he was. They must have had a flag or something on it to not give out any information about where he was.

That was horrible to go through, because you never know what could happen on a surgery table. If he were to pass, I couldn’t have peace of mind, because we didn’t talk or say goodbye, or anything like that. That was horrendous.

Because of the tumor, he has issues with dexterity in his right arm. He can’t extend or lift it all the way up to put on his shirt, so he has to have someone in there help him, and it’s not going to be the guards. He has to ask other detainees there. Some are nice about it, and some won’t help.

When I was looking at his medical records from ICE, which my husband had to mail to me because they won’t give me any information, I found out that he has acute asthma. I didn’t even know that. He kept saying he was having a hard time breathing. I don’t know whether it’s because of the asthma or because that tumor was really close to his trachea.

He said he had a hard time swallowing. He’s lost 40 pounds since he’s been in there. Not only because the food is awful, but because he can’t swallow and it’s really painful for him. He says he tries to drink soda to keep his stomach full because of the carbonation, but other than that, he can’t really eat the way he wants to.

He also said that he was having some issues with his vision and his eyes and head hurt really bad, but he didn’t want to bring it up because he wanted them to focus on getting treatment for his tumor, because they were taking forever to do that. I think it’s glaucoma, but I’m not sure because I can’t call and ask about anything. They want him to have surgery or they said he’ll be blind in both eyes.

What does it take for a person to be released when they’re unhealthy? I don’t want my husband to be released from jail in a body bag. This is craziness. And it’s not that they’re not treating him. They’re not treating him in time. They go long periods without doing anything and then they’ll do something, just to say that they’re doing something.

I feel like I have no rights as a wife, like there’s nothing I can do. I’m supposed to be by his side. I’m supposed to make sure that he’s not sick. I’m supposed to make sure that if he is sick, I’m helping him get well. I’m supposed to take him to doctor’s appointments and, when he goes to surgery, I’m supposed to be there.

It’s unsettling because they have no compassion. They don’t care. But these situations that are happening are permanent and I want to catch them before it’s too late for him. Even if he’s released after this situation, he still won’t be able to work because he can’t use his arm. And that could have been avoided had they done surgery sooner.

At first, I was sad and crying, but now I’m angry. I’m really, really mad. It’s been too long. It’s been too much happening. At one point, when he was healing from the surgery, his wound came apart in one area. He asked them if they could close it, and they wouldn’t!

They left him with it open until they took him to see his surgeon and then they did something about it. But what if it had gotten infected? Especially since now they have the varicella virus [which causes chickenpox and shingles] going rampant in the detention center. They said they’re taking care of it, but they’re not, because it’s been over two months and there’s still a varicella outbreak in the detention center.

What I want to happen is some type of policy that goes into effect that says anybody that’s detained for a certain amount of time, depending on the severity of their condition, they have to be released. They can be placed in some type of place where they’re monitored, if they want to contain them or leave them in jail, or whatever the case may be. But don’t leave them in an environment where there’s pollution and viruses everywhere.

WHAT ARE conditions like inside the detention center?

WHEN I am able to send him money, he can only buy noodles and canned fish. How much nutrition is in noodles and canned fish? You can’t imagine eating that every single day. He said the food is mush, it looks like dog food.

The treatment from the guards is not the best. He’s been called racial slurs. They put shackles on him whenever he goes to get medical attention. Even during his surgery, the only time they took off his handcuffs and shackles was when he went to the bathroom.

There were guards there at all times. Even when he was trying to recuperate from the surgery, which took five hours, ICE kept calling the hospital asking to get him back to the jail. The doctor said they would release him after a few days, because he needed time to recuperate.

I’ve been talking to different places and they’ll tell me, we called ICE and we called the jail, and they said everything is fine. Of course they’re going to tell you that everything is fine! [The detention facility is] a private institution and they’re getting paid for this. You need to have somebody privately pop up and do an inspection so that you can really see what’s really going on.

I want to know what’s happening so I can report it and tell people, but my husband doesn’t want to tell me over the phone because the calls are recorded. That’s a problem.

Not to mention the environment. Detainees’ clothes are dingy and dirty. My husband’s shirts have holes in them at times. They have to purchase their clothes and personal items, because the stuff that they purchase is better than the stuff there — but they don’t have a job!

The detainees who do work in there get a dollar a day for eight hours. It’s disgusting. I’m tired of the whole situation, it’s driving me crazy. I want help saving my husband’s life first, and then, of course, others’ lives as well. I’m willing to fight. Even after my husband is released, I’m going to still fight for that, because that’s wrong.

HOW DO you feel about the demand to abolish ICE?

I FEEL great about that! If they went about things a different way, there wouldn’t be an uproar within the community. They do things underhandedly and sneakily. They don’t have respect for lives, and that’s the issue.

You never know what it feels like until it happens to you or somebody that you care about and you love. The people that are making decisions that are higher up, they have no clue what’s happening to people’s families at all. The mental anguish, the financial anguish — it’s awful. It’s horrible.

They’re not thinking about the citizens that they claim that they care about and that they’re protecting. They don’t care about the citizens connected to the people who are in there — the spouses and the families of the detainees. It’s gross. It’s disgusting to me. I’m tired of it.

I’ve gone in and spoken to my husband’s ICE officer a couple of different times. He swears that he doesn’t know anything about his medical situation: “Oh, I didn’t know he had an eye condition.” How did you not know that? You’re his officer. That’s your job.

There’s nobody to hold them accountable for anything, so I’m going to hold them accountable. And then all of us are going to hold them accountable.

HAVE YOU or your husband experienced any retaliation from ICE?

THEY MIGHT be targeting my husband. They told him they’re going to move him to Arkansas, Alabama or Texas. That could be because I’m constantly doing stuff, making noise about it. If they take him out, that’s another mental game that they’ll play with you, because they know that I can’t fly there and visit him like I can reach him here.

I’m tired of this. I need him released now! I’m not going to let him die in there. They don’t like that we’re protesting. That’s why they put those fences up around the jail. I’m not going to let this happen. Till my last breath, I’m not going to let this happen.

We’re going to keep fighting the good fight. Luckily, we have people behind our backs, helping to fight with us, which is an amazing thing. The more people we have the better, because they will listen to many. They won’t listen to one.

Further Reading

From the archives