It was dusk in late July when a young woman with long, curly brown hair and a gray T-shirt walked up to the guard station at the entrance to Port Everglades, babbling in Spanish. Tears streaked down her cherubic cheeks. The guard on duty, who spoke only English, was baffled.
The woman, 26-year-old Viridiana Martinez, thought to herself, Be as smooth as possible. Hear everything. Watch everything. Take note of everything.
The guard called in a deputy from the Broward Sheriff's Office, who also spoke no Spanish. They exchanged a glance of shared confusion while Martinez carried on.
"Yo me quiero regresar," she said over and over. She wanted to be deported.
When a bilingual deputy arrived, Martinez told him tearfully that federal agents had recently sent her husband back to Mexico and that she didn't have enough money to make it on her own in the U.S.
The deputy suggested Martinez could help her family more by staying in the U.S. and working, offering to turn a blind eye if she just walked away. Martinez brushed aside his suggestion and begged for deportation.
Staying in character was difficult. Unbeknown to the authorities, Martinez spoke perfect English. When federal immigration agents arrived, one eyed her suspiciously. He looked at his fellow officers and said in English, "This bitch... She's crazy. She's just turning herself in,'" Martinez recalled during a recent interview in Lake Worth.
Martinez says she was taken to a holding facility, fingerprinted, and asked if she would sign paperwork waiving her right to see a judge in order to expedite the deportation process. She refused.
Around 2 a.m., more than six hours after turning herself in, Martinez was booked into the Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Pompano Beach. She pulled on the facility-issued sweats and let out a sigh of satisfied disbelief.
The plan had unfolded perfectly.
Martinez doesn't have a husband in Mexico, nor does she want to be deported. She had tricked her way into the Department of Homeland Security's center to see for herself how undocumented immigrants languish for months, sometimes years. A week earlier, fellow immigration activist Marco Saveedra had also been arrested on purpose so he could infiltrate the facility. Together, they planned on exposing its flaws.
The concept of due process is held dear as a central piece of the American justice system. Anyone prosecuted under the criminal code has the right to know the charges against him, to be tried in public by a jury of his peers, and to be appointed a lawyer if he cannot afford one.
But immigration courts operate in the netherworld of administrative law, where the rules are different. Detainees aren't afforded public defenders, and at BTC, a notorious judge oversees their hearings in a courtroom typically without witnesses, where the docket can be obtained only through Freedom of Information Act requests.
For years, word had spread among immigration activists about the plight of those inside the center, which is specifically intended to hold low-priority cases. Despite recent orders for immigration officials to be lenient on immigrants who have no criminal record and may be eligible to stay in the U.S. legally, the center is packed with them. Many are picked up during federal sting operations, then hauled off to BTC, a facility run by the private, controversial prison company the GEO group. Of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 250 detention facilities, only seven, including BTC, are considered "contracted detention facilities." According to some estimates, BTC gobbles up more than $800,000 a week in taxpayer money when running at maximum occupancy.
While the argument is often made that undocumented immigrants pilfer resources, steal jobs, and cost taxpayers dearly, low-priority cases such as the people detained at BTC are vital to local economies, and many who are employed pay taxes. In 2010, households of undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have pledged to overhaul the dysfunctional and costly immigration system, but the economy has taken precedence this election year. Until last month, complaints about BTC were met with silence by anyone in a position to change things.
Only after a detainee staged a hunger strike, after Martinez and Saveedra infiltrated the center, and, most recently, after it was revealed that an inmate was raped with a Sharpie marker are members of Congress demanding an extensive case-by-case review of every detainee in BTC.
When not fooling federal agents into detaining her, Martinez is loud and bubbly, dropping terms like "cool beans" and "cray cray" while inserting smiley-face emoticons into text messages. Since the spring, Martinez and about seven other activists from around the country have been staying rent-free at the Lake Worth home of a fellow activist.
Martinez, sitting at the kitchen table in a red shirt that says "Undocumented and Unafraid," says she was born in Monterrey, Mexico. When her father lost his job, he left for the U.S. on a tourist visa, overstayed, and worked in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. A year later, in 1994, when she was 7, Martinez, her sister, and her mom entered the U.S. on tourist visas and joined him.