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Paperwork hitch landed this immigrant in 'hell on Earth'

Floyd Abdul, a Zimbabwean national, describes the four months he spent locked up in Alabama's Etowah County Detention Center.

When Floyd Herbert Abdul, a native of Zimbabwe living legally in the United States, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Nov. 24, 2006, he was plunged into a bureaucratic system that he describes as “hell on Earth.”

“They do so much to literally dehumanize you,” he said. “If you’re not strong mentally, then you lose it.”

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The reason for Abdul’s nightmare: He never received a letter informing him of an upcoming immigration hearing because the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, sent the letter to an outdated address.

As a result, Abdul, a political opponent of Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe who is seeking political asylum in the U.S., spent over four months in detention, first in Atlanta, then at the Etowah County Detention Center in northeast Alabama. Etowah, a jail that also holds county inmates, has for years concerned human rights activists. They say the quality and quantity of food, lack of access to the outdoors and jail-like conditions are inappropriate for immigrant detention, which is not designed as punishment. 

ICE considered closing the facility in late 2010. But as detailed in an NBC News investigation, politics and small-town economics kept immigrants coming to Etowah. The detention center now holds “long-term” detainees, many of whom have criminal records or complicated cases that drag on for months or years.

Hannah Rappleye/NBC News

The Abdul family relaxes on a swing in the yard of their Liliburn, Ga., home. Pictured left to right are Aanisa, 9, Floyd Abdul, 39, Jayden, 6, and Sharon Shahadat, 38.

In 2007, Abdul found himself locked away in the remote jail after being arrested outside his suburban Atlanta home. He later learned that when he missed the hearing he was never notified about, an immigration judge had ordered him deported. Abdul would later prove he never received the paperwork.

Thousands of immigrants – both legal and illegal -- are deported “in absentia” each year, sometimes after intentionally skipping court dates and becoming fugitives. But the number of such deportations surged in the mid-2000s – including a one-year spike of 80 percent to 126,000 in 2005, according to the Government Accountability Office  -- in part because the Department of Homeland Security lacked mailing addresses for many immigrants. 

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In Abdul’s case, he fought the deportation order with the help of an attorney. In April 2007, ICE agreed to release Abdul on a $25,000 bond while his asylum claim went forward.

His family was overjoyed to see him home. But shadows lingered. 

“Even when he came home, he would just sit, and just stare into space,” remembered his wife Sharon Shahadat, 38.

Things have improved since then. The children are in school. Abdul has picked up some work. The family is back in a routine of dinners at home, playing with the kids in the yard and church on Sundays. 

But the seeming tranquility is undercut by uncertainty over the ongoing appeal of the deportation order, and the knowledge that ICE agents could again show up at the door at any moment, Shahadat says. 

“We just pray,” she said. “At times you try to plan ahead, but you’re always what if, what if. It’s always at the back of your mind.”