Immigrants Who Fight Deportation Are Packed Into Federal Gulags for Months or Years Before Their Cases Are Heard
A trio of immigrants crouches against the wall in an attempt to catch a narrow ray of sunshine.
The men are in jail, locked inside a concrete triangle. It is mid-morning in Florence, and only traces of day can be smuggled into the building through the chain-link-covered window below the ceiling.
Two artificial lights glow, and a couple of basketballs are abandoned in the corner of the big, empty room.
When you ask the government officials gathered there during a tour whether immigrant detainees are allowed outside, they tell you that the immigrants you're looking at are outdoors.
"This is considered covered-enclosed outdoor recreation," says Marty Zelenka, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement field officer tasked with supervising the long-term detention wing reserved for immigrants at the Pinal County Jail.
Chief Deputy James Kimbell of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office blinks when asked whether the county provides actual outdoor recreation for its criminal inmates, even though it refuses to do so for people held on civil immigration violations.
"This is considered outdoors," Kimbell, who oversees the county jail, repeats, annoyed. Then he answers: "Yes."
Criminal inmates — charged with such felonies as murder, rape, and armed robbery — are allowed fresh air in the recreation yard, while immigrants — charged with being in the country illegally — step outside only for court appearances.
The Pinal County Jail is one of five facilities in Arizona used by the federal government to hold immigrants in long-term detention. The jail is notorious among immigration attorneys and human-rights advocates, who consider it the state's worst immigrant-holding facility.
Just down the road from the county jail is the Florence Detention Center, a compound shared by ICE with an immigration court. All immigrants detained in Arizona are taken there, processed into the system and jailed while they wait to be deported or for their cases to be heard in immigration court.
The federal government owns Florence Detention and holds it up as a model facility for what immigrant detention should look like.
Detainees there are allowed considerable freedom, especially when it comes to recreation. Its rec yard boasts a soccer field with newly installed Astroturf, several exercise stands, a basketball court, and benches for anyone who simply wants to sit in the shade.
Detainees who do not want to go outdoors can retreat to their housing unit, where they may watch television in English or Spanish.
Problem is, only a fraction of immigrants held by the federal government are kept at Florence Detention.
The vast majority of immigrant detainees in Arizona are tucked inside the walls of a county jail or private prisons, where the federal government contracts away their custody.
Conditions at detention centers not run by ICE are radically different from those at Florence.
ICE claims its detention centers are not meant to punish immigrants.
Because immigration proceedings are civil, the federal government insists that detention is different from incarceration.
America does not imprison immigrants, government officials insist; it detains them.
More immigrants are held in long-term detention centers today than at any other point in the nation's history.
Twenty-eight states host detention centers, most of which are county jails or private prisons. ICE contracts for about 34,000 detention beds a night across the country, nearly double the 18,500 beds available in 2005.
Immigrant detention costs taxpayers about $2 billion each year.
All immigrants in ICE custody in Arizona are taken to a processing facility in Florence, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.
Florence is a prison town. On its main road are a county jail, two private prisons, a state penitentiary, and the Florence Detention Center, a revamped World War II internment camp.
A local museum celebrates the city's history as a dumping ground for criminals, displaying nooses used to hang outlaws and the chair an inmate was strapped to during the first gas-chamber execution in Arizona.
The city has enriched its prison tradition in the 21st century by becoming a repository for immigrants held by ICE as their cases to remain in the United States are adjudicated.
Immigrants with cases before immigration courts are detained at five long-term detention centers in Arizona, four of them in Florence and one in Eloy.
Pinal County contracts with the federal government to incarcerate immigrants, as does prison giant Corrections Corporation of America, which holds detainees at Florence Correctional and the Central Arizona Detention Center, next to the county jail. CCA, a billion-dollar-a-year business that got its start in 1983 detaining immigrants in Houston, also owns the Eloy Detention Center.
The Pinal County Jail was built in April 1996 to hold 472 prisoners. In 2006, the building was expanded to include 1,032 new beds.
To help fund the incarceration complex, Pinal County signed a contract with the federal government to hold more than 600 immigrants at any given time. The jail is the second-largest detention center for immigrants in the state. Only the Eloy center is larger, with 1,500 detainees.
Pinal County makes $59 a day per detainee, meaning its contract is worth $36,000 a night — $13 million a year.
ICE claims that most immigrants nationwide are held in detention for about a month at a time. But there are thousands of individuals in jail waiting to appear in immigration court who have been there for much longer.
There are two legal tracks for immigrants who find themselves in ICE custody, says Lindsay Marshall, executive director of the Florence Project, a not-for-profit organization that provides free legal consultations to prisoners in ICE custody.
Immigrants caught within 100 miles of the border or who have been in the United States for 14 days or fewer are subject to "expedited removal," Marshall says, a process that typically leads to quick deportation.
These people do not have a case to remain in the United States.
Then there are immigrants with more complicated cases, immigrants who have lived in the United States for many years or are members of mixed-status families (their spouses and/or children are U.S. citizens). Some fear they will be tortured or killed if they return to their home countries.
These cases are heard by federal immigration courts, whose rulings can be challenged to the Board of Immigration Appeals. After that, the government or the detainee can go to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a final ruling.
Immigrants held by ICE are charged with immigration violations, presented to them in Notices to Appear, the immigration equivalent of an indictment or civil complaint. The legal process that such immigrants go through is separate from the criminal justice system.
Notices to Appear charge immigrants as arriving aliens, usually asylum seekers or refugees; as present in the United States without legal authorization; or as violators of the terms of their legal entry (including immigrants who had been working here on tourist visas).
Some immigrants find their way into the detention system after criminal convictions or arrests. Immigrants who are convicted of crimes serve their time and then are turned over to ICE, where they continue to be held for immigration violations.
The American Civil Liberties Union says some immigrants who have committed crimes need to be detained, but the group argues that most immigrants in detention pose no threat to society and deserve better than to remain in jail indefinitely while their cases crawl through the system.
Bond is almost impossible for immigrants to get because most do not have an attorney to advocate for them. Judges are not allowed to consider granting bond to detainees with criminal records, even non-violent offenders.
Because of extensions, court backlogs, and the complicated nature of these cases, some can drag on for five years or more.
Activist groups for immigrants, and many immigration attorneys, see detention as a legal sword the federal government holds over immigrants' heads. If immigrants accused of nothing more than being in the United States illegally choose to leave voluntarily, they go free in their native countries. If they don't, they are incarcerated.
"The biggest obstacle [facing detainees]," Lindsay Marshall says, "is making the choice to pursue their rights and fight their cases while knowing they are going to be locked up [for what often turns out to be a long time]."
Immigrant detainees at the Pinal County Jail are isolated from outside contact, unlike detainees at the Florence Detention Center, Florence Correctional, the Central Arizona Detention Center, and the Eloy Detention Center.
Pinal County is the only federal contractor in the immigrant-detention business in Arizona that does not allow its prisoners to go outdoors.
The Pinal County Jail also is the only facility that does not allow prisoners to see family in person.
Leticia is a Guatemalan who spent 21 months in ICE custody, 12 of them at the Pinal County Jail. She was the single mother of two minors, 17 and 8, when she was detained. Both are U.S. citizens.
In January 2009, after living for 20 years in Phoenix, she was taken into ICE custody. Leticia's case is, like most immigrants' cases, full of complications.
She applied for legal status in 1996 and was granted it in 1997. But with the passage of a 1996 immigration law, the rules for earning legal status changed, and a judge retroactively applied the new law to her case, denying her plea to remain in the United States.
The attorney representing Leticia did not specifically challenge the retroactive ruling in his appeal, and the immigration Board of Appeals authorized her deportation in 2002. Her attorney appealed that order and, in 2004, the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court affirmed that she could be deported.
ICE did not take her into custody until January 2009.
The next month, a different attorney filed a habeas corpus petition on her behalf in the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the immigration court got its ruling wrong, her previous lawyer had been incompetent, and deporting her would be a grave injustice for her family, creating orphans the state would have to care for.
While the court considered her petition, Leticia was detained by the federal government and denied contact with her family.
After a couple of weeks in the Pinal County Jail, Leticia asked an ICE agent how long she might expect to be imprisoned.
When Leticia finished explaining the details of her case, the agent looked at her and said, "Cases like yours take seven to 10 years."
Leticia was horrified and considered signing a deportation order to get out of jail. But her teenage daughter, Leslie, wanted to remain in America, so she decided to continue fighting her case.
For more than a year, Leticia was not allowed to see her children, except on a small, primitive computer monitor attached to a telephone receiver. The situation was the same for the children, who viewed their mother on a corresponding monitor in the jail's visiting area.
No-contact visits are a jail rule for not only criminal inmates but for immigrant detainees. There is no face-to-face contact (not even through plexiglass), much less any touching.
It took more than a year after Leticia was taken by ICE for her to hug one of her children, and it happened as a fluke. Her 8-year-old son began crying for his mother during her court hearing, and a guard had the heart to allow them a short visit.
The separation adversely affected the boy. Depressed, he started failing in school.
During a phone call from jail before the hearing, Leticia had asked him what was wrong. "He started to cry and cry," she remembers. "'He said, 'Mommy, it's never going to be the same without you.' It was so terrible."
Visits from family and friends occur in a cramped room containing two rows of dingy monitors, with a camera perched atop each screen and a phone beside it. The detainee never sees his or her relative except in a grainy transmission that looks like security-camera footage.
ICE officials claim to be sensitive to detainees' need for contact visits.
They tell lawyers and activists that detainees at the Pinal County Jail are allowed in-person visits with family members — if they file a special request.
But in statements to New Times, ICE representatives tell different stories about the issue of contact visits.
Vincent Picard, agency spokesman in Arizona, says ICE "regularly" takes detainees from the Pinal County Jail to Florence Detention for contact visits, a claim contradicted by ICE field officer Marty Zelenka, who supervises federal detention in the county jail.
Zelenka says he never has denied a request for a contact visit but has received "very few."
Immigrant advocates at the ACLU and detainees say otherwise, insisting that contact visits are denied routinely at the jail.
"Almost all detainees to whom we spoke either indicated they were denied requests for contact visits or did not know they could even request such a visit," states the Arizona ACLU in a just-released report titled "In Their Own Words: Enduring Abuse in Arizona Immigration Detention."
As for the extremely limited visitation system at the jail, Leticia's daughter, Leslie, tells New Times that on several 65-mile trips from Phoenix to the jail to see her mother, she was turned away because prisoners had been put on lockdown or there was a problem with the jail's computers. Sometimes she was told to come back the next week.
New Times witnessed firsthand visitors getting turned away. On this occasion, the computer system had broken down. Everyone who was visiting family was booted out of the visitation lounge.
Pinal County contracts with a private company for its phones, and a 15-minute phone call can cost $20 — money that few detainees have. (The situation is a little better at Florence Detention, where calls cost 17 cents a minute.) The result is that many county detainees cannot contact their relatives.
Field officer Zelenka admits this is a problem that he hopes Pinal County will fix when a new phone contract is negotiated.
ICE is quick to emphasize that it requires contractors to sign an agreement to uphold federal detention standards and that humane treatment of immigrants is paramount among these standards.
Mandates include warm meals and access to outdoor recreation. As mentioned, the Pinal County Jail refuses to provide the latter to the immigrants it holds, even as it allows criminal inmates outdoor privileges.
This despite a 2009 internal ICE report, "Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations," acknowledging that there are major differences between corrections and detention — mainly that corrections are "punitive" and detention is "civil."
The ICE report emphasizes that the philosophy of "care, custody, control" is inappropriate when dealing with immigrant detainees.
ICE acknowledges that it does not train its contractors to follow federal detention standards, which was obvious when New Times interviewed Pinal County Chief Deputy Kimbell, who is in charge of the jail.
Asked whether he sees a difference between "criminal inmates" and "detainees," Kimbell answers, "Corrections, detention — it's all the same thing."
After a year, Leticia was transferred out of the county jail to the Central Arizona Detention Center and, finally, to Eloy, where she remained in custody for another 10 months.
She says detention at the subsequent two facilities wasn't as bad because she had physical contact with her children during their visits.
U.S District Judge Mary H. Murguia ruled in October 2010 — a year and a half after Leticia's habeas corpus petition was filed — that the immigration courts had to reconsider her case and that continuing to detain her would be unjustified. This reconsideration still is pending, but Leticia has been free and back with her children since the ruling.
Her son is better now that his mother is out of jail. But he still has constant fear of losing her again.
Leticia is on the verge of losing her house after falling behind on her mortgage payments because of her long incarceration. ICE granted her a temporary work permit, but her previous employer wouldn't rehire her, and she has not been able to find employment since her release from federal custody.
The federal government stopped housing female detainees, such as Leticia, at the Pinal County Jail in early 2010 after human-rights groups complained about their treatment, the ACLU says in its new report.
Detainees sent letters to various groups detailing medical negligence and abuse. The University of California-Davis Immigration Law Clinic began compiling information on the jail in 2007.
In September of that year, the Law Clinic released a report alleging that 60 detained immigrants went on a hunger strike after they were transferred from the Florence Detention Center to the county jail.
It noted that several detainees scheduled final contact visits with their families in anticipation of the transfer to the more repressive facility but were moved before they could say their farewells in person.
The Law Clinic supplemented its earlier findings with a 2008 report focusing exclusively on women.
It said women at the county jail had no privacy while showering and were often watched by male guards. The guards responded, according to the report, that it was the inmates' responsibility to hide themselves, even though the shower was out in the open.
The ACLU received a letter from female detainees alleging that medical requests from women were ignored regularly by jail authorities.
One detainee recalled approaching a nurse with an earache and getting told to request a medical appointment, which she did. After a few days, she requested another. And then another.
Finally, the nurse told the detainee to stop bothering her and asked, "What would you do outside of jail?"
When the detainee responded that she would go to the emergency room, the nurse said she would be turned away.
One female detainee reported that medical complaints often were dismissed by authorities who recommended water as a miracle cure. Detainees complaining of everything from headaches to nausea and high and low blood pressure were treated with water by jail guards.
"There isn't much we can do," a detainee reported one guard responding to her medical complaint. "You're going to be deported anyway."
Last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came to Arizona for a tour of the Pinal County Jail and released research titled "Report on Immigration in the United States: Detention and Due Process," in which it criticized conditions there.
It singled out bad food and the lack of family visits and outdoor recreation as serious problems, as well as what it claimed was inadequate access to legal materials and healthcare for detainees.
The commission also pointed out that the refusal to grant outdoor recreation to detainees at the county jail is in violation of the federal government's detention standards.
All this pressure and negative publicity pushed ICE to take women out of the Pinal County Jail, the ACLU insists.
ICE denies that the jail is inappropriate for female detainees. All ICE facilities in Arizona can hold women, government officials say. Otherwise, they say, ICE would not contract with them.
ICE claims that the women were transferred from the Pinal County Jail to the Central Arizona Detention Center, a private prison, and to the Eloy facility for reasons related to "operational efficiencies."
They decline to elaborate on this bureaucrat-ese.
Hector is a University of Arizona graduate from Mexico who was adopted by American relatives in Tucson when he was 5 years old.
Now 25, he has an Arizona birth certificate and a Social Security number. But because his adoptive parents didn't file for automatic citizenship, he technically lacks legal status.
He wound up in ICE custody last summer on a traffic violation. The Pima County Sheriff's Department waved a document in front of him that called for his deportation to Mexico. Deputies told him he could fight his case from there.
The alternative to signing, they said, was "going to Florence." He thought they were referring to the maximum-security prison.
Scared to death, Hector signed and filled out an affidavit explaining why he believes he is a United States citizen. He was placed in ICE custody, where he remained for nearly six months.
Hector was housed in a 15-man cell at Florence Correctional with an untreated schizophrenic who walked around rocking and shouting "Chido!" ("awesome," in Spanish), which became his nickname among prisoners.
One night, Hector was in bed and noticed Chido standing over a sleeping detainee nicknamed Chiquileen ("Little Man," in Spanish), who was 6-foot-4.
"Don't look at me, don't look at me!" Chido warned, gesturing wildly. "I'll kill you! Don't look at me!"
Hector and his cellmates signed a request asking that Chido be moved, pending psychiatric treatment. Hector took the request to the guard in charge of his unit, whom he remembers chuckling and saying, "That's funny."
For three weeks, Chido went without meds, Hector recounts, and the detainees took turns watching him at night.
Chiquileen and another detainee, nicknamed Marvin the El Salvadoran, would alternate staying up at night. Every so often, they would give Chido a thumbs-up. If he returned it, they knew he was still awake. If not, they knew he was asleep and everybody in the unit might sleep safely.
After three weeks of this, Hector remembers, a psychiatrist saw Chido. Within two minutes, the doctor declared him schizophrenic.
Immigrant detainees in need of medical care probably won't get it right away in federal holding facilities, Hector says: "When you file a request, you have a notion that you're probably going to wait a week and a half" to see a doctor.
Hector remembers an incident in which a man scraped his knee during outdoor recreation, asked for Neosporin, didn't receive it, and eventually developed a major staph infection.
Another instance he remembers involved a diabetic who was given the wrong dosage of insulin. He says when the man told the nurse the dosage was off, he was told to take it or leave it.
Watchdog groups also have been critical of the time it takes detainees to receive medical care.
After visits last year, the Women's Refugee Commission identified medical-care problems at the Central Arizona Detention Center and at the Eloy Detention Center in a report titled "Women and Children at Risk: Detention in Arizona."
The commission reported seeing a woman "visibly swollen all over." She had seen a doctor only once and had received no medication.
At Eloy, a woman with multiple sclerosis was denied medication until a neurologist could see her, the commission says. It took a month for her medical files to arrive at the facility, and after two months, the government had yet to schedule a consultation.
In its new report, the ACLU also chronicles serious medical delays. In one case, Helen, who was held at Eloy, reported vaginal bleeding. The report says her problem was shrugged off by the clinic as an extended menstrual cycle, and a month later, she underwent an emergency hysterectomy.
Grievances filed by immigrant detainees are scoffed at by ICE and its detention officers, the ACLU contends.
ICE rules allow immigrants held in federal custody to file complaints over conditions where they are imprisoned.
But the ACLU says very few grievances are acted upon in favor of detainees.
In its new report on conditions in Arizona immigrant-detention facilities, the ACLU analyzed almost 500 grievances filed at Florence Detention and Eloy to determine how many were approved or denied.
At Florence Detention, for example, two were approved over four years, while 64 were denied.
At Eloy, 44 were approved and 268 were denied.
"I don't think detainees are filing frivolous grievances," ACLU attorney Victoria Lopez says.
The report claims that detainees' grievances are ignored routinely by ICE and that detainees are threatened by guards if they file grievances:
"Several detainees in each of the Arizona facilities indicated that detention officers commonly threaten [them] with transfer to [the harsher Pinal County Jail] if they file grievances, complain, or make requests that are deemed unreasonable by guards."
To illustrate its point that ICE and jail officials do not take complaints seriously, the ACLU cites an incident with a transgender detainee named Tanya.
A Mexican who was incarcerated at Eloy from May to December 2009, Tanya filed a complaint against detention-center staff that got her thrown into an isolation cell for 10 days.
Recalling the incident that sparked the complaint to New Times, Tanya says a female supervisor took her into an office, told her to "take off your shirt, bitch," and grabbed her chest.
When she complained, the ACLU says in its report, she was sent to isolation.
At a different point in her incarceration, Tanya was housed with a detainee who groped her in her sleep and harassed her for oral sex, she claims. When she complained to a guard, she says, she was once again sent to isolation.
The ACLU also claims that so-called protective custody is used to punish detainees it is supposed to protect.
The organization's report recounts an incident in which a male detainee was raped in a bathroom by another detainee and the victim was placed in isolation. The ACLU says the incident was reported to the Pinal County Attorney's Office, which declined to prosecute. The detainee victim was shackled in isolation, supposedly for his own benefit, and ICE would not remove his chains even for meetings with his attorney, the ACLU says.
For ICE, watchdog groups' complaints about grievances are sources of irritation.
About them, ICE spokesman Vincent Picard states, "Grievances are regularly filed at all of our facilities, and when substantiated are appropriately resolved. Every detainee is issued a handbook that explicitly details their right to file a grievance and the process in place to do so."
New Times asked ICE whether guards ever threaten detainees with transfer to the Pinal County Jail for filing grievances. Officials refused to respond specifically, saying only that all complaints are investigated to the fullest.
ICE officials say the ACLU is dead wrong when it says grievances are difficult to file and often get ignored when they are filed.
"It's all in the handbook," Picard says. "Some of the stuff that frustrates us is when we have activist groups or attorneys who just deny reality and say, 'There's no way for them to file a grievance. There's no grievance process.' It's clearly outlined in the detainee handbook."
In its report, the ACLU recounts an incident in which a detainee says he showed a Pinal County Jail guard his ICE handbook to explain a complaint.
He says the officer looked at him and said, "We don't go by ICE rules. We go by sheriff's rules."
A Pinal County detention officer suggests to New Times during the tour of the jail that grievances are not always taken seriously because detainees do not take them seriously.
"Our grievance officer is there every day, and [detainees] don't want to talk with her," the officer claims. "They wait until she leaves, then say they're upset that they didn't get to share a grievance with her. They choose not to. They want lawsuits."
He claims to know this because detainees supposedly write that on their grievance forms.
"Pay me a sum of money, and we'll call it even," he says one wrote.
The ACLU's Victoria Lopez says she has never seen such a threat by a federal detainee written on a grievance form, and she challenges county jail officials to produce an example.
Immigrants have the nearly impossible task of dealing, while in detention, with complicated legal cases to stay in the United States, the Florence Project's Lindsay Marshall says.
Contrary to what anti-migrant zealots shout, she emphasizes, immigrants in government custody have legal rights.
"It is challenging for people representing themselves while detained to be able to . . . present their cases," she says. "You're asking people whose lives are literally on the line to navigate an incredibly complex field of law, in court, without an attorney."
Marshall says, "[Immigration] cases are really fact-intensive, so you need to do things like collect letters from family members — or collect photos, utility bills, employment records — to prove you've been here for 10 years."
Many legal defenses against deportation require proof that the immigrant has been here for an extended period of time and has been a positive influence in his or her community.
The Florence Project cannot take every case it comes across, so the legal-aid group walks detainees through whatever options they might have to remain in the United States and explains what they must prove to win in court.
Asylum seekers who can demonstrate that their lives would be in danger if they returned to their home countries could be eligible for "humanitarian parole," Marshall says. Along those lines, there is a defense based on a treaty signed by the United States, the Convention Against Torture.
Others seek what is legally known as "cancellation of removal," in which people with green cards or visas ask a judge to weigh their ties and contributions to the United States against a negative, typically a criminal offense or a violation of immigration law.
The Florence Project tells those who decide to fight legally to stay here that they are in for a long battle and that it can take years for cases to go through appeals and finally get adjudicated.
Last year, 279 immigrants, the vast majority from Mexico and Central America, helped by the Florence Project successfully won their cases to remain in the United States, with many still pending.
One of the Florence Project's success stories is Nigerian Ademuyiwa Thompson.
After nearly a year in custody, Thompson recently won his CAT treaty case to remain in the United States. Nigeria is plagued by violence, and Thompson, who has lived in this country for more than 20 years, fears that he would be killed if forced to return.
But the government is appealing the immigration court's ruling, so he remains in the Pinal County Jail, away from his family in California.
Thompson was transferred to Arizona because of space constraints in California.
Unlike Thompson, there are many immigrants who abandon legitimate claims to stay here because they cannot tolerate lengthy incarceration.
"We routinely see people who are eligible to fight, but they choose not to," Marshall says. They give up and ask to be deported.
Many detainees and immigrant advocates believe that the real goal of federal detention is to force as many immigrants as possible — whether they are eligible to stay, or not — to get out of the United States.
"It's just a setup," a detainee at the Pinal County Jail declares to New Times. "They put us in places like this so we'll sign and move on."
The Department of Homeland Security announced a five-year plan in 2009 to reform the immigrant-detention system in the United States and create a "truly civil" program.
Its decision was based on an internal report acknowledging that most facilities ICE contracts with to incarcerate civil violators are "built, and operate, as jails and prisons to confine pre-trial and sentenced felons."
ICE director John Morton told the New York Times that detention "needs to be done thoughtfully and humanely."
He also expressed interest in building new facilities so that the government would no longer be forced to rely on private prisons and county jails for contract bed space.
An attorney for the ACLU in Texas, Vanita Gupta, warned at the time that the government needed to be watched, or else it would not make any changes, Hutton's stated concerns aside.
Two and a half years later, ACLU attorney Victoria Lopez says, the federal government has changed nothing about the way it handles immigrant detainees in Arizona.
"Certainly the detention bed space is equal to two years ago," Lopez says. "The quality of facilities and the quality of care that people may or may not receive in these facilities is the same."
Detainees are still kept indoors and denied access to their families at the Pinal County Jail, which, she says, is the "perfect example" of how detention facilities punish immigrants for deciding to fight their civil cases.
Walking through the county jail, ICE field officer Marty Zelenka lists a bevy of federal officials assigned to track the facility's problems.
Some are the same people who think immigrants who are locked in a room are actually outdoors.
Zelenka refuses to say the Pinal County Jail is a bad place for immigrants, but he admits it does not fit the model established by Florence Detention.
"Can I compare the Pinal County [Jail] to the ICE detention center?" Zelenka asks. "No, it's a contract facility we use. Does it meet all of our standards [and] exceed some? Absolutely. Is it appropriate? They're housing people in accordance with [federal detention] standards."
ICE officials will not directly address the fact that the Pinal County Jail is the only immigrant-detention facility in Arizona that denies detainees the right to visit with family members in person or go outdoors.
They simply say ICE is constantly evaluating its programs to ensure compliance with government standards.
For Victoria Lopez, this is hardly enough.
If ICE were serious about reforming its detention system, let alone protecting immigrants' rights, she says, it would end its detainee-incarceration agreement with Pinal County.
So why doesn't ICE take that step, given that (whether it will admit it or not) the jail obviously fails to live up to the federal standards the agency touts?
Lopez thinks the feds are simply unwilling or, perhaps, too lazy to go through the process of finding a more humane facility.
"It's a matter of beds," she answers. "The Pinal County Jail has a lot of beds."
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