High Country News
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High Country News

Our detention system is bankrupting immigrants

As corporations cash in, mixed-status families are thrown into deep poverty.

In March 2009, at dinnertime, Myrna Obeso got a call at her house in Tucson, Arizona. At first, the busy mother of two didn’t pick up. Robo-callers were always bugging the family at that time of night. On this particular evening, the caller was more persistent than usual. Exasperated, she finally answered.

“Pima County Jail,” a recorded voice said.

As her mind struggled to make sense of the call, another voice came through: that of her husband, Gustavo Velasco. He was supposed to be at his second job, working nights as a cook at a nearby restaurant.

For years, Velasco had been using a fraudulent Social Security number. This was back before E-Verify — a government tool that allows employers to verify work documents — when jobs were easy to find if you could supply convincing documents.

A couple of years before, however, the state passed laws resulting in undocumented residents caught using fake documents to be charged with felony identity theft. Previously, the felony charges were used to prosecute people who benefited from fraudulent documents to do things like rack up credit card debt, not those who were merely seeking jobs. Advocates like Puente Arizona, a migrant justice organization, say the changes were aimed specifically at undocumented workers. Because of these laws, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was able to charge hundreds of undocumented workers with felonies during his controversial workplace raids.

Velasco’s arrest that March 2009 night would also end in a felony charge. He spent five months in the Pima County Jail and was eventually offered a $10,000 bail. But because Velasco was undocumented, he not only had to fight those charges, he had to fight his detention and possible deportation. The time he spent inside Eloy Detention Center, in the cactus-speckled desert of rural Arizona, exacted a psychological toll on him. He never knew how long he’d be locked up, or if he’d be deported; in fact, he still doesn’t. But the financial impact on his wife and two children — and the life they had built here in the U.S. — would prove equally devastating.

Myrna Obeso stands in her Tucson, Arizona, neighborhood. Laura Saunders/High Country News

UNTIL VELASCO’S ARREST, Obeso was a stay-at-home mother raising two elementary-age children. During the five months he spent inside a jail cell, she was suddenly left scrambling to pay bills while raising money for his bond. “I was paying for rent and utilities, everything,” she told me from her festively decorated living room. She emptied their saving accounts — they had been on track to buy a house — and sold their car. She started selling manicures, baked goods and Mexican desserts like flan, as well as the silver jewelry that a friend gave her in order to raise money. Eventually, she began cleaning houses, too. She had started the process to sign up for food stamps for her children, who are U.S. citizens, but her lawyer advised against accepting any public benefits.

Detention is designed to target people who are here illegally. But for Obeso and the estimated 16 million others who are part of mixed-status families, it can have an impact that ripples far beyond the individual families and communities entangled in U.S. immigration laws. When a relative is arrested, a family spends, on average, $9,228 on costs related to detention and deportation proceedings. Once other indirect costs, such as lost wages, are factored in, the true financial loss is closer to $24,000, according to a report released last October by the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona. What’s more, a significant number of those financially impacted are already U.S. citizens or are here legally, said Geoff Boyce, the report’s lead researcher. This means that the distinction between those who are targeted by immigration enforcement and those impacted by detention and deportation need to be examined more thoroughly. “We need to think much more broadly about what the social and economic repercussions are for this (enforcement) and who is absorbing those,” Boyce said.

In Tucson, where the study was conducted and where Obeso lives, 81% of the 125 households surveyed reported that the person detained was a primary breadwinner. Subsequently, the median average income for a household dropped to approximately $22,000 after an immigration arrest.

“(It’s) taking families and throwing them into deep poverty,” Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, told me. “That is the number-one impact on the family. Of course, there are psychological impacts, too.”

Myrna Obeso and her husband Gustavo Velasco attend a Sunday service at their church.Laura Saunders/High Country News

Obeso was eventually able to pay Velasco’s county bond. But because Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had been informed of his immigration status, he wasn’t set free. Instead, he was handed over to federal immigration authorities and sent to Eloy Detention Center. He would remain there for another two months while he waited for the outcome of his case.

After his release, life reached a new normal. The family downsized to an apartment and adjusted to living on a smaller budget. It was hard, Obeso said, but they never lacked basic necessities. They were able to make it work.

Then, early in the morning in April 2010, two ICE agents and a Border Patrol agent came to their apartment. Obeso wasn’t surprised when she opened the door. Her pro bono lawyer, Margo Cowan, had called a few weeks before to warn Obeso that her husband might be detained again. Velasco’s case had ended in a felony conviction, making him a target for deportation — just as the 2007 and 2008 state laws had intended. The agents entered with a bright flashlight and let her husband change out of his sleeping clothes before escorting him out. Obeso remembers her eldest son asking her, “Mama, my dad went in that white van. Where is he going?”

He was headed back to the Eloy Detention Center, this time for nearly two years. Obeso and a public defender continued fighting from the outside: If they could get his case dropped to a misdemeanor for false impersonation, then he’d no longer be a priority for deportation. Velasco had no prior criminal record, had been living in the U.S. for over a decade and had two U.S.-born children, so he had a decent chance. Ironically, however, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, this made him even more vulnerable to prolonged detention. People like Velasco are more likely to fight their cases because they believe they have a shot at winning, and that usually adds up to a longer detention time. Those who don’t have much of a case move through the system more quickly, and end up deported.

Read the second half of the story here.

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News.



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High Country News

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Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.