When I first met Alta Gracias, she was a vivacious 18-year-old studying at the small village high school in El Salvador where I was volunteering as an English teacher, fresh out of high school myself. We soon discovered that our birthdays were only a week apart, and this symbolic connection developed over time into a close friendship. Now, Alta’s children call me “tia” and whenever I talk to them on the phone, they ask when I will next be visiting them.
The past 14 years of raising her children in poverty have left lines on Alta’s face and worry in her eyes. But I saw my friend’s bright spirit dim the most after being held for almost three months in a U.S. immigrant detention center. Alta had decided to travel to the United States to join her husband, who had migrated a year earlier. For months she had been considering this heart wrenching decision, feeling the pull to see her husband and the desire to remain in El Salvador with her young children. In the end, she opted to make the journey, thinking that her salary might allow the family to reunite again more quickly. Since it is impossible for poor Salvadorans like Alta to get a visa to the United States, she undertook the harrowing overland journey through Guatemala and Mexico, surviving the rigors of the journey, only to be caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
For the next three months, while awaiting deportation back to El Salvador, Alta was held in an immigration detention facility, a series of enormous tents that baked in the hot desert sun during the day and let in icy drafts at night. Along with thousands of other immigrants, she was confined to her bunk bed, with the lights on, 24 hours a day, except for the one or two hours a week when they were allowed out to the yard. They were given very little to eat: one sandwich with white bread and frozen lunch meat was the most typical meal. Alta told me she was never given any vegetables, and only occasionally a small cup of canned fruit. Everything else – from pen and paper, to personal care items, to phone calls – had to be purchased at exorbitant rates, adding financial stress to the emotional strain her family was undergoing. Unable to call El Salvador, Alta yearned for her children – one and two years old at the time – and worried for their well being; her husband tried to hold the family together but often when we talked on the phone I could hear the tears in his voice. I did what I could, sending money to Alta and calling El Salvador, and she responded by sending me letters. The photos below are segments of these letters, and make her heartbreak stunningly clear.
In English, the poem reads: “When you are far away from what you most love, when you feel that everything is at an end, when loneliness invades your soul and you cry with the cruelest pain of humanity. When you want an embrace and would give a piece of your heart, of your life, to have one. When you are alone without any consolation, and you feel that all doors are closing on you, and you have no way out.”
Now, as Congress debates amendments to the Immigration Reform Bill – including proposals on immigrant detention, I feel the need to do something more for Alta and for other migrants like her. So I decided to write this post about immigrant detention, since I have found that more often than not, folks know very little about this reality. I hope that, as more people learn about immigrant detention, more voices will be raised against this system that turns immigrants into commodities for the profit of private corporations. These big businesses fund strong lobbies for harsh immigration laws that will produce ever more detainees to fill the beds at their detention facilities and increase their profits. But I hope that, by writing this post, I can contribute in some small way to empowering another voice that will make experiences like Alta’s a thing of the past.
Abuse of Detainees
The immigrant detention system in the United States is rife with abuse of detainees’ basic rights.
- Children in detention (1)
- the Deparment of Homeland Security detained more than 1,300 children in adult facilities for periods ranging from three days to more than one year
- children were often placed in solitary confinement “for their protection”
- from 2008 to 2012, children under the age of 18 spent a combined total of 36,598 days in 30 adult detention facilities around the country.
- Missing medical care
- often no facilities on site and no hospitals nearby
- detainees with medical conditions like diabetes are not given the necessary food or medicine
- immigrants with mental illnesses held with general population
- many cases of delayed medical treatment leading to death of detainees
- Study of 300 Salvadoran deportees (2)
- 20% experienced violence during arrest (in 80% of these cases, detainee offered no resistance)
- 11% experienced violence while detained (94% of these cases involved the excessive use of force)
- 25% experienced verbal harassment
- 31% failed to receive adequate food and water while detained
Who Pays? Who Profits?
Our federal tax dollars are paying for the human rights abuses of the immigrant detention system and providing huge profits to private corporations.
- Costs of Detention (3)
- Over 70% of immigrants are detained in private facilities or state and local jails
- On average, the federal government pays $95 a night per bed per person detained, for an average of $4,038 for the average stay in detention
- These facilities actually spend about $30 per night per detainee
- A growing business
- Federal budget for immigrant detention increased by more than 50%, from $2.4 billion in 2005 to 1.7 billion this year
- 200 private facilities owned by three corporations (Corrections Corporation of America, Geogroup, Management and Training Corporation) make a $5 billion annual profit on immigrant detention
- The past 30 years have witnessed an enormous boom in the construction of immigrant detention centers, as shown in these maps based on DHS data
Want to Learn More?
I strongly recommend an excellent 30-minute documentary that was released this month: Immigrants for Sale. This documentary includes personal stories of the family members of detained immigrants, of workers in detention facilities, and of local residents organizing against the construction of detention facilities in their town.
Want to Do Something?
The Interfaith Immigration Coalition, an organization made up of hundreds of national and local faith-based groups, maintains a very up-to-date website with current action alerts. There you can find the phone number of your Senator or Congressperson, as well as a discussion of amendments under discussion, and sample calling scripts.
(1) Report by National Immigrant Justice Center on data from the Department of Homeland Security
(2) Phillips, Scott, Jacqueline Maria Hagan, and Nestor Rodriquez. 2006. “Brutal Borders? Examining the Treatment of Deportees During Arrest and Detention.” Social Forces 85:1, pp. 93 – 108.
(3) Fernandes, Deepa. 2007. Targeted: Homeland Security and the Business of Immigration. New York: Seven Stories Press.