Maria, an undocumented, 24-year-old mother of three from Guatemala, showed up at the Martin County Jail earlier this year to voluntarily pay a $150 traffic fine.
Instead, she wound up handcuffed and thrown into jail. And even though she paid a $750 bond to leave the facility, Martin County jail officials kept her money and kept her behind bars until Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived and took her away. Now she's stuck in a cell at the Broward Transitional Center, a privately run Pompano Beach detention center for "low-level" detainees being deported despite having either committed minor, nonviolent offenses like traffic violations or no crimes whatsoever.
She gets to see her children only once a week. And she told New Times in a phone call from the detention center that one of her children, who is 9 years old, was at one point held in federal custody. The child was so traumatized by the experience that she now fears even visiting her mother and possibly being detained again.
"They give me 60 to 90 minutes one time a week with my kids," Maria told New Times. "Imagine. I am their mother! That is very little time. They cry. They sob. 'Mami,
Maria — whose real name has been changed because her immigration case is still open — is one of hundreds of low-level detainees slated for deportation at the Broward Transitional Center, a complex that has been the subject of repeated protests dating to at least 2012, when two undocumented activists infiltrated the GEO Group-run facility and reported what they said were upsetting conditions inside. Weeks ago, activists were arrested after chaining themselves outside the facility and blocking its entrances. Earlier this year, New Times reported on Mary Caceres, a Jacksonville woman detained at the center despite being issued a valid work visa before ICE arrested her.
Maria's story is no less harrowing. Jonathan Urrutia, her lawyer with the Legal Aid Service of Broward County, says tales like Maria's prove that even if the Trump administration stops separating families at the border, America's deportation policies still needlessly separate parents from children. He adds that those policies will continue to do so unless the nation's immigration system is overhauled.
Following the birth of her oldest child, Maria fled horrid conditions in Guatemala six years ago and eventually settled in Chicago, where she had two more children. In the meantime, she worked manual-labor jobs and was busy applying for legal residency, but Urrutia says she missed one of her court dates because she went into labor.
"She goes into labor and has to stay at the hospital for a couple of days," Urrutia says. "So she was not able to go... to the hearing."
After that, Maria remained undocumented in the States to stay close to her two American-born children as well as her 9-year-old daughter, who'd crossed the border and spent three weeks in federal custody before being reunited with her mother. The family eventually moved to Florida.
"I am not a criminal," Maria told New Times. "I have cleaned boats and homes. I have worked hard doing jobs that no one wants to do."
But earlier this year, Maria was pulled over in Martin County and issued a $150 ticket for driving without a proper license. The officers handed her the ticket and let her drive away. She decided on her own to show up to pay the fine.
"I wanted to make this all right with the law," she said. "I went to present myself and straighten this out."
Instead, Martin County Police told her there was a warrant out for her arrest. The officers took her into custody that day, and then, she said, she sat in jail for seven days. In the meantime, she contacted the Legal Aid Service, which instructed her to pay the $750 bond as quickly as possible so she could leave the jail before ICE officials arrived.
She paid the bond, but astoundingly, Martin County Jail officials still kept her behind bars, she says.
"She has paid her bond of $750, which means that there is no longer a lawful basis for her detention," Urrutia wrote to jail officials, according to documentation provided to New Times. "Thus, the continued detention of my client constitutes a new arrest that requires probable cause under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."
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In his letter, Urrutia added that Maria's continued detention opened the sheriff's office up to a possible lawsuit. Meanwhile, he wrote, Maria's children were "terrified about what has happened to their mother and do not understand why they have been separated from her."
Now, Maria says she's trapped at the Broward Transitional Center with little ability to contact the outside world or take care of her young children, who are staying with their paternal grandmother while Maria awaits her fate. She says some guards are professional, but others have yelled at her, refused to converse with her in Spanish, or played cruel games with detainees, including telling lies such as the facility's commissary is out of basic goods like shampoo or soap.
"They say they are not going to separate families, but that is a lie," Maria told New Times. "They do it here. There are many women being kept away from their kids. They think this country is compassionate. They think this is a country of justice. But it is really one of suffering. "
Charles Strouse contributed to this story.