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How for-profit prisons and a broken immigration system keeps lives in limbo.

Published: June 2018

Recently, I went to the Don T. Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas to say goodbye to my friend Irma. I had been paired with her through a program of the non-profit Grassroots Leadership organization that matches volunteer visitors with refugee asylum seekers held in detention. She has been held in the private for-profit prison for nine months, never knowing when she would have her turn in the long, erratic process to plead her asylum case. At long last, in early March, she learned the final hearing that would determine whether she would be released on bond or deported would be scheduled for April.

An indigenous highland Maya from Guatemala with Spanish as her second language, she seldom left her remote, rural pueblo to visit the larger towns in her country. She left everything behind and risked the long, arduous and dangerous trip to the U.S. border to apply for asylum because she feared dying from escalating domestic abuse she had suffered from for years. Like many women held in detention that I have met over the last two years, Irma was also seeking better economic opportunities to support her parents and seven year old son, Freddie.

Domestic violence and murder is so prevalent in Guatemala that the Department of Justice has listed it as a qualifying category for considering asylum for women from that country. In January, four months after being incarcerated, Irma passed the “credible fear” interview — the first step in the process. In this hearing, she made her case, backed by certain evidence such as written testimony and police reports, to demonstrate that she has reason to fear for her life if she returns to Guatemala. She then waited another four months to learn when she would be called for her second hearing (as described above). Should she be released on bond, she could wait two years or longer for a judgment on her asylum case.

The likelihood that an immigrant will be granted asylum depends largely on the court and judge that is assigned to their case. Judges also set bail, yet there are no set standards or guidelines. Set bail can range from $5,000 - $17,000 depending on location; it can dramatically vary from cities like, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Antonio. Currently there are over 650,000 asylum cases pending in the system. Although President Trump authorized adding over 2,000 more U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, he only added 75 new judges. Since taking office, Trump has detained over 110,000 people — a 42 percent increase over the same period a year ago. The result is that hearing schedules are erratic, case files go missing (the system still operates with paper files), judges are exasperated by confusion and delays, and detainees are often lost in the system for months on end. To add to the chaos, few immigrants have attorneys to represent them — even when underage — and there is often a shortage of translators to meet the demand of the court’s heavy docket.

Forced labor and uncertain timelines

While Irma languished in the for-profit prison waiting for her case to come up, she was “strongly encouraged” — meaning threatened — to work six hours a day cleaning, cooking and performing other chores at the facility, for which she was paid a total of $1.00. Most women work, even when sick, in order to avoid reprisals such as being transferred to another section, put into isolation, or threatened in some way, because they need the money to buy phone cards or toiletry items (at highly inflated prices) in the prison commissary. Detainees are not permitted to receive phone cards, toiletries or other supplies from friends and family. Meanwhile, for every day that a woman is held in detention the prison receives over $125.00. Remember, these people have committed no crime, and have followed the rules by presenting themselves at the border to agents as refugee asylum seekers (a process that applies only to people from certain countries. Mexicans, for example, are immediately deported).

After presenting herself at the border, Irma was held in a detention center in Texas. For over a week, she and other women and children were held in the “hielera” (ice box), a windowless room kept near 50 degrees with only minimal food as a way of further intimidating and “discouraging” detainees from thinking about another crossing. This spring, over 700 children were separated from their parents when both were moved from these initial detention processing centers along the border. Often the parents go weeks before they learn where their kids are held. These are regular practices we Americans do to others.

The scourge of for-profit prisons

CoreCivic, the for-profit prison that operates the Hutto detention center among many others, is a company that rose from the brink of bankruptcy in the early '90s when it discovered that it could fill it’s under-populated prisons by focusing on the opportunity to incarcerate the rising number of immigrants. Political instability and gang violence in Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, etc.), was fueling an exodus of vulnerable and threatened people. Meanwhile, at the same time, the political legacy of failing to develop a just and practical immigration policy, led authorities to become more aggressive about rounding up undocumented immigrants. Unlike the “newcomers” I have been visiting, the average time period that undocumented people have been in the U.S. is 10 years. CoreCivic has a robust lobbying effort in Congress to persuade lawmakers to make detention sentencing longer and more severe, bonds higher, and enforcement stricter.

In 2016, CoreCivic spent over 1 million dollars on lobbying and $284 thousand in a PAC during the last election cycle. At the same time, an Inspector General report described substandard living conditions in many of CoreCivics facilities, including poor food, coerced labor, and worse, sexual and physical assault, By using detainees for most of their facility maintenance, in 2016 CoreCivic reported over 1.85 billion in revenues — most from contracts with ICE. CoreCivic has also contracted with ICE to “rent” the GPS ankle bracelets ($4.41/day) that some judges order refugees to wear after their release while still waiting for their final asylum hearing. In another canny business move, CoreCivic recently re-structured its business, placing its “facilities” (prisons) into REIT (Real Estate Investment Trusts) and separating them from the operational costs of the business. This means that CoreCivic pays pay little or no income tax on the prisons they “rent” to ICE. To me, this is the pinnacle of a corrupt and cynical response to a human rights crisis: the U.S. taxpayers actually subsidize a private company that makes a fortune on human misery and profits by promoting measures that prolong the time a refugee is held in their prisons.

Suffocating costs for detainees

New predatory businesses are springing up all the time to take advantage of the growing market of victims of our broken immigration system. Libre by Nexus, an intermediary of bail bond agencies, has built a successful business following the payday loan strategy that profits on the desperation of people facing unknown time in limbo in prisons waiting for a hearing. The main source of income for Nexus comes from “leasing” the GPS ankle monitors required by some judges as a condition of release on bond at inflated prices. Many detainees struggle to pay even the $450 monthly fee for the ankle bracelet, and thus get further behind in their exorbitant interest payments. Desperation traps people into entering these loan agreements but soon they find themselves charged with a different “crime” : they are sent to jail for being poor.

Waiting for deportation and an uncertain future

Last Thursday, I sat down with Irma and asked how her hearing went. She was refused bond, which would have allowed her to wait for her asylum application to be processed. She had the option to wait for another open-ended period to appeal her bond hearing, but with the risk that she would again be rejected. The open-ended time frame of the appeals process wears people down emotionally, and ultimately they are intimidated into signing their own deportation agreement.

We hugged and cried after she told me she would soon be deported. She was waiting for ICE to gather enough women from Guatemala from other facilities to fill a flight back to her country. She was sad, but also relieved that the long months of open-ended waiting were over.

Last year, I was paired with another Maya woman, who came from an even more remote part of Guatemala, fleeing for the same reasons as Irma. In our first meeting, I was asking the usual questions about her story, and, in a child-like voice, she looked up to me and said, “They told me that if I could make it to America, someone there would help me.”

The continued failure of immigration policies in the U.S.

I know we are not helping these women. Only 14 percent of those who apply, receive asylum, and under the Trump regime, it's unlikely that the number will increase. Meanwhile, we warehouse these people (a considerable number of the 500 women at the Hutto facility are from Romania, Africa and Asia) so that the private prison industry grows and flourishes and continues to profit. The steady flow of people to our border, the profit making from their misery and the acrimonious division among Americans regarding immigrants are all the result of our country’s lack of will to craft a just and humanitarian immigration policy that includes the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S.

The U.S. has procrastinated on working out a solution to this problem because we enjoy the cheap, available labor many immigrants have always provided and because it benefits our economy to have “those people” do the jobs not many U.S. citizens would willingly accept.

Instead of acknowledging the contribution of immigrants, we exploit people further by demonizing them, dehumanizing them with brutal names and accusations, loading them with impossible financial burdens, and using them to foment fear for political gain. I believe we need to recognize this as a humanitarian crisis — around the globe — that we need to rise to our highest moral values we claim to posses as a country to figure out a better way.

I don’t know how we can continue to help every Guatemalan woman who fears death at the hands of her drunken husband, or every Honduran woman whose children were threatened with kidnapping and murder by gangs, or the Salvadoran women who are attacked for being community organizers for a political party that is in opposition to the current regime. How can we take in everyone? But I do know people will continue to come, no matter how terrifying the prospect of violence, thirst and death in the desert, or how long they must spend in limbo within the detention center or even how “tall and magnificent” the border wall is, as long as the conditions in their own country are so much worse.

Irma says she will keep in touch with me when she gets home. She’s the second friend I’ve known who I still talk with. She wants to come back to the U.S., but I don’t want her to come, it’s not a good time to be here. We are her only chance, and it’s a slim and brutal one at best.

Jill Nokes is a landscape designer, author and land stewardship consultant living in Central Texas. Jill is a member of the Texas Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I serve on the board of the Hill Country Land Trust, and on an advisory committee of Hill Country Alliance.



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Grassroots Leadership: A People’s Tribunal Will Put ICE, Local Elected Officials, and a Private Prison Company on Trail for Detention Center Abuses (2018)

Mother Jones: Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Is a Boom Time for Private Prisons by Madison Pauly (2018)

Radio Ambulante: Sign Here, produced by Silvia Viñas (2018)

RadioLab: Border Trilogy: parts 1, 2 and 3 by Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte (2018)

This American Life: The Walls (2018)