My Day Inside an Immigrant Detention Center

By Anne M. Haule

The women are brown and black. They wear navy blue scrubs. Most wear navy canvass shoes but a few wear bright orange plastic shower sandals. They are in their 20s and 30s except for a few with long grey hair. They are neat and clean. A few wear white plastic rosaries around their necks.

The facility is a 2-hour drive east of San Diego on the 8. It’s in the Calexico desert. Neither trees nor green for as far as the eye can see — just lots of grey rock and brown earth. Metal fencing topped with barbed wire surrounds the building. The parking lot is mostly empty. The sun burns both the sidewalk and the few cacti that dare to dot the landscape.

Inside it’s clean and tidy. There is no smell. There is no noise.

The walls and floor are colorless. The guards are white and brown with crisp uniforms. The receptionist smiles as she exchanges our identification for numbered visitor badges.

Heading down a long hall, the beige cinder block walls have signs with slogans. One reads, BIONIC — believe it or not, I care. Another one reads, Rehabilitation Through Education. The signs seem misplaced. The people who reside here are immigrants not prisoners. There is no need for rehabilitation.

I learn that the facility is run by MTC, a private prison management company, that contracts with the federal government and is paid on a per person per day basis. My guess is the signs and posters are from its “corporate office” and intended for prisoners who had done bad things — not detainees seeking asylum.

We follow a silent security guard to the female pod. He opens the door to a large room with green plastic stacked chairs and two folding tables. Here the beige cinderblock wall has another out of place wall hanging — a very large framed picture of pastel colored spring trees and flowers.

Outside the room only six women are lined up against the wall. A different guard explains the low turnout telling us that many of the women are “at work”. I learn that detainees can chose to earn $1.00 per day doing housekeeping and kitchen jobs.

Those women who aren’t at work, or already lined up against the wall, are waiting in the food line for their tray lunches. The guard announces our arrival and soon some of the women from the food line join the line to see us. Now there are 18 people waiting.

We divide up at the two tables to advise the women of their rights. This day the majority at my table speaks Spanish. The Spanish speakers are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Only two women speak English. They are from Eritrea. I wish I could speak Spanish. I wish I had heard of Eritrea.

In 20-minute intervals we hear their stories. They are running for their lives. They are running to escape beatings and rape. They are running from the gangs and cartels that control their communities. They are running from being used as drug mules and sex slaves. They are running from local police who are on the take. They are running from abusive husbands and boyfriends. They are running to protect their families from being killed if they don’t obey the drug lords. They are running from places that treat women as men’s property. They are running from constant terror.

We tell the women that we are not from the government. We tell them we can not be their lawyers. We tell them we are from the ACLU and our role is limited to explaining what’s happening to them and what are their rights. We review their papers. We listen to what they say. We select from among the green pamphlets in our file box. We give each woman a green pamphlet in her own language. It describes the asylum seeking process and her rights.

My lack of Spanish language skill limits my role. I do my best to convey empathy. I hand tissue when tears fall. I place my hand on theirs. I say a few words in Spanish. “Lo siento y buena suerte”. The words are beyond inadequate.

The people in the Calexico detention center need help. The only lawyer in town is a private lawyer who charges for his services and has as much work as he can handle. Other detention centers are more fortunate — some even have a few pro bono lawyers available. The distance to Calexico is a problem. The detainees do not have access to computers. The phone cards are expense. Language can be a barrier. Without legal help, most of the people will be deported. The ACLU is doing what it can given its resources. More needs to be done.

One local lawyer started the Southern California Immigration Project (SCIP) out of her home to provide pro bono and “low bono” representation to some of the asylum seekers. This is a start but again, more needs to be done.

Heading home going west on the 8, the sun begins to sink. Staring at the bleakness of the terrain and the impenetrable mountains that divide our countries and cultures, I ponder the courage of the women I have met and the inhumane cruelty they have escaped . . . if only temporarily.

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ACLU.)