Two Activists Infiltrate a Center Where Illegal Immigrants Are Held

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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.


Broward Transitional Center

"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.

Although Martinez was free to attend public school — a 30-year-old U.S. Supreme Court case guarantees access to public education for children no matter their immigration status — there was no English-as-a-second-language class. Still, she excelled at academics and coasted through high school.

"[But] I always felt like an outsider," she says. "I wasn't white enough for the white people. I wasn't Mexican enough for the Mexican people because I was in AP honors classes... I always had this identity crisis."

She hoped to go to college and work at the United Nations helping displaced people. She graduated with honors in 2004 and was accepted at North Carolina State University. Unlike some colleges that have systems to help undocumented immigrants, N.C. State could do little to assist Martinez with funding or securing an international student visa.

"Literally, my world came tumbling down," she says. She drifted into a haze of depression and community college.

"I was 22 when I first came out publicly and was like 'I'm undocumented,'" she says. "I was fucking tired of keeping this big secret... And I just wanted to say, 'I'm undocumented. What? What? This is me: Undocumented. Illegal. Right here.'"

In 2010, Martinez helped form the North Carolina Dream Team, a nonprofit activist group that was pushing the DREAM Act, legislation meant to help undocumented residents — those who grew up in the U.S. and are students or served in the military — stay in the country and work legally. Since 2001, numerous versions of the bill have been put up for votes, with little success. In 2010, it passed the U.S. House before getting struck down in the Senate.

Undeterred, Martinez linked up with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), an umbrella organization funded by donations that supports pockets of DREAM activists across the country. Over emails and conference calls and at meetings, one place kept coming up as a microcosm of how flawed the immigration system had become: Broward Transitional Center. Not only is it one of the few privately contracted detention facilities ICE has, but the nature of low-priority cases detained there seems to contradict orders given by President Obama and the head of ICE demanding the agency focus its resources on convicts and those who pose a threat to national security.

"What makes that place so horrible — it's not so much the food; it's not so much the beds — it's the fact that you're not told anything about your case," Martinez says. "You're at the mercy of Judge Rex Ford or your deportation officer or your attorney, which a lot of times turns out to be a useless cow."

Of the country's 59 immigration courts, 19 are located inside detention facilities, including the one at BTC. The Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review oversees all immigration courts, which operate as administrative tribunals independent of the federal court system.

Detainees are charged by the Department of Homeland Security not with crimes but with civil immigration offenses, usually under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Only 15 percent of detainees — many of whom are picked up and asked for proof of citizenship without having committed any crime or only minor traffic infractions — secure legal representation, according to a recent report from the Center for Migration Studies.

Advocates say that without proper counsel, detainees struggle to understand the legal proceedings and are often strong-armed into waiving the right to a hearing or agreeing to voluntary deportation. When they do get in line to appear before a judge, it typically takes months. The immigration system is hopelessly backlogged; 260 judges slogged through more than 300,000 cases in 2011, making the average removal case stretch 507 days, according to data from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Though cases can take years, in the end, detainees either stay or go. The attorneys who bring the charges — in immigration court, these aren't standard federal prosecutors but rather ICE attorneys working for the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor — can drop the case and cancel removal orders if a person meets certain criteria, such as if they've been continuously present in the U.S. for ten years or if they can prove that deportation may "result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to his or her family."

Others may apply for asylum or petition to stay in the U.S. legally. Those who have been victims of crimes might be eligible for a U visa, though only 10,000 such visas can be issued each year.

Some detainees agree to voluntary deportation, meaning they pay for their way back and must leave the U.S. under a deadline. Others are unwillingly loaded onto either ICE aircraft or commercial flights and sent packing.

As they await their fate, some detainees are let out on bond (sometimes having to wear an ankle bracelet) and return for a hearing, but many are held at facilities like BTC. When Martinez was booked and went inside, she saw firsthand how all the statistics and rumors she'd heard translated into wasted tax dollars, fractured families, and total disregard for judicial norms.

On a broiling Saturday afternoon at the end of September, 17-year-old Jose Acosta, with his two brothers and father, stood in front of BTC holding signs that read "Let My Mom Out We Miss Her" and "We Are Unjustly Detained Here Please Help Us." A line of two dozen other protesters with signs snaked down the sidewalk.

Plopped on an industrial stretch of Powerline Road in Pompano Beach, BTC looks docile, even cozy. Coats of soft-pink exterior paint and an absence of discernible security measures — no spools of barbed wire, no looming guard towers, an open front gate — create the illusion of a pricey rehab center or a boarding school for troubled teens. Even the name, Broward Transitional Center, is a well-crafted misdirect.

Acosta said that this past March, around 5 a.m., his family was awakened by a harsh knock at the door of its Margate home. His father answered, and in stepped two men wearing suits. "They just started asking for social security numbers and names of everyone," Acosta laments.

He, his two brothers, and their father are in the U.S. legally, but his mother, who had moved to the U.S. 15 years ago to escape violence in El Salvador, never got proper papers. "Once she said her name, Maria Caballero, the men said they had to take her," he says. She was hauled out of the house on the spot and has been in BTC for roughly seven months. Broward court records show that women with that name have only traffic infractions.

Acosta's account is almost impossible to confirm or deny because ICE reports on removal operations aren't public record, according to agency spokesman Nestor Yglesias.

Samuel Resendiz-Lopez's wife and three teenaged daughters were also protesting. His 17-year-old daughter, Samantha, said her dad, a construction worker who has been in the U.S. for 19 years, was at a rest stop coming home from work when federal customs officials profiled him and asked for proof of citizenship. Samantha said he was released a few weeks ago without ever seeing a judge. He now wears an ankle bracelet and has been told to prepare for deportation. Resendiz-Lopez has no criminal record, according to a search of Broward and Palm Beach court files.

Susana Barciela, policy director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, a Miami-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to detainees, says it's absurd to hold low-priority immigrants. "By definition, BTC detainees have committed no crimes or only minor infractions," she said in an email. "They are precisely the population that ICE should release or not detain in the first place — people who pose no threat to their communities."

Barciela says that in September 2011, federal immigration agents stood outside a cosmetology exhibition at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center and asked people for proof of citizenship. Given that many immigrant women work in the field, it was easy pickings. Agents arrested anyone whose documents didn't pass muster. "To the best of our knowledge, none of the women arrested had histories of prior criminal convictions," Barciela says.

A spokeswoman with Customs and Border Protection, the enforcement agency of DHS, says there are no records of such an event.

It's not just activists who say ICE shouldn't be funneling finite resources into detaining low-priority cases. In 2011, in the face of budgetary woes, John Morton, national head of ICE, issued three memos that set priorities for the agency. He specified they should focus efforts on undocumented people who werefugitives, who recently entered the U.S., and/or who posed a danger to national security or public safety. He discouraged officers and prosecutors from going after noncitizens who were either victims or witnesses of crimes or who would qualify for the DREAM Act. In June, President Obama told the agency to stop deporting immigrants who would qualify for the DREAM Act.

Why, then, is the Broward Transitional Center packed with people who fit the mold of low-priority cases?

"Low priority doesn't mean no priority," said Marc Moore, the sharp, hawk-eyed ICE field officer for BTC who guided New Times on a tour of the center. "These people are in violation of immigration law... We don't house violent criminals or those with known violent tendencies here. But there could be people who have committed white-collar crimes or other offenses."

Broward Transitional Center was built in the 1990s by the controversial security firm Wackenhut, which changed its name to the GEO Group in 2003. At first, the facility housed inmates taking part in a work-release program run by the Broward Sheriff's Office, Moore says. In 2007, BSO moved out and ICE moved in.

At full capacity, BTC can hold 595 men and 105 women. Architecturally, it's less like a prison and more like an overly sterile, closely monitored, very quiet motel. Each room sleeps six on three sets of bunk beds. There are air conditioners and private bathrooms with a tub and shower, though the doors don't lock.

Moore showed off the flat-screen televisions in detainee rooms that have 32 channels, boasted about the outdoor fitness equipment, and touted the fact that detainees can earn a dollar a day if they volunteer for odd jobs, from working the mess hall to clipping hair at the barber shop.

Men are issued bright-orange jumpers, while women get gray sweats. A courtyard separates the sexes, the women relegated to a single hallway on the second floor of one building. That day, a pungent cafeteria served fried chicken for lunch. There are offices for attorney-client meetings, an intake room, and one courtroom, which New Times wasn't allowed to view during the visit because it falls under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review.

A few employees of GEO, wearing white shirts that bear the corporate emblem and American flag, lingered about the facility on security detail. Hiring rent-a-cops to handle the day-to-day operations of a federal detention facility isn't cheap. According to a report from the National Immigration Forum, taxpayers drop $164 each day per detainee. A that rate, it costs just shy of $42 million to run BTC at maximum occupancy for one year. The report says that, nationally, the number of detainees held in ICE facilities nearly doubled in a decade, from 209,000 in 2001 to 392,000 in 2010.

"If ICE detained only people who were serious threats, the estimated savings would top $1 billion," says Barciela.

The private prison industry is making huge profits. GEO, which is contracted to operate at least seven facilities on behalf of ICE, reported a net income of $78 million for fiscal 2011 on revenue of $1.6 billion. Halfway through 2012, the company had netted $38 million in profit on revenue of more than $800 million.

Rex Ford has been an immigration judge since 1993 and presides over the courtroom at Broward Transitional Center. From pictures of Palm Beach society events, it's clear that Ford is a hefty bald man with a graying mustache.

A request to interview Ford was declined.

In May 2009, the New York Times came across transcripts from the hearing of Xiu Ping Jiang, an undocumented waitress from China who had been apprehended in West Palm Beach "on suspicion that she was in the country without a visa," according to the article. She had attempted suicide on numerous occasions and was, allegedly, forcibly sterilized in China — one of the reasons she fled the country.

Ford repeatedly scolded Xiu, who didn't have an attorney at her hearing and barely spoke English, for answering his questions before the court interpreter had a chance to translate them. "Ma'am, we're going to do this one more time, and then I'm going to treat you as though you were not here," Ford said.

Even though she was standing directly in front of him and answering his questions, Ford said, "The respondent, after proper notice, has failed to appear." He then ordered her to be deported to China. Jiang responded by wailing, "I'm going to die now." It's unclear what ultimately happened to her.

Ford is arguably the most hard-line immigration judge in the country. From 2006 through 2011, he denied 93.3 percent of the 460 asylum claims that came before him. Only three other judges in the country denied asylum seekers at a higher rate, according to Syracuse University records.

Between April 1, 1997, and May 21, 2010, Ford also approved at least 9,642 stipulated orders of removal, the most of any immigration judge in the country, according to a report from Stanford University and the National Immigration Law Center. Stipulated removals are orders through which the person detained waives his or her right to appear before a judge and moves directly to deportation.

The report said government officials manipulate detainees into accepting these deals by giving them "inaccurate, misleading, and confusing information about the law and removal process. For example, government agents overemphasized the length of time detainees would spend in detention if they chose to fight their cases and see a judge, yet failed to tell detainees that they could secure release from detention on bond while fighting their cases, or that some might win the right to remain legally in the country."

Karen Tumlin, an attorney who coauthored the report, says other judges have at least brought detainees in for hearings to ensure they understand the agreement. A few judges have even expressed concern that stipulated removals don't jibe with due-process clauses in the U.S. Constitution. Two court cases are working their way through circuit courts that challenge the government's reliance on this practice.

"A large portion of the overall number of stipulated removals are coming from one judge," Tumlin says, referring to Ford.

Henry speaks quickly and nervously in broken English over a phone line that's monitored. He's a 35-year-old father of two with jet-black hair who came to Florida 12 years ago from Honduras. Public records show he has two misdemeanor traffic violations in Manatee County.

In March, Henry got a strange phone call from a woman who wanted to know if he was interested in selling his car. His curiosity piqued, he agreed to meet her in the parking lot of a grocery store on a Friday evening.

When Henry arrived, he says, there was no buyer, only federal agents. They took him into custody. Off to BTC he went.

Henry kept his head down and says he rarely spoke to other detainees who cycled in and out of his room. Four months into detention, on July 15, Henry woke up around 5:40 a.m., stripped down in the bathroom, and turned on the shower.

"Somebody from outside turned off the lights," Henry says. Before he could react, he was slammed against the wall. "They told me [in Spanish], 'Don't move or I'm going to hurt you.'"

Seconds later, he felt something penetrate his anus, then recede. It happened again. On the third time, the assailant drove a foreign object deep into Henry's ass and fled the bathroom.

In severe pain, Henry wrapped a towel around his torso and stood in the dark room panicking. Medical records confirm that Henry was taken to Broward Health North. A CT scan "revealed the foreign body in the rectal area," and doctors eventually pulled out a Sharpie pen. He was transported to a rape center in Fort Lauderdale.

Later, Henry was moved to Krome Detention Center, a notorious all-male facility on the edge of the Everglades in Miami-Dade County that, unlike BTC, houses hardened criminals. For his protection, Henry has been given his own room at the facility. But it is essentially solitary confinement and is taxing in new ways.

"No one was charged" for the rape, said BSO spokeswoman Dani Moschella via email. "That case has been deemed 'pending inactive,' which essentially means it is closed unless the detective becomes aware of other information in the future."

Henry says BSO deputies questioned whether he plunged the Sharpie into his own rectum in a desperate attempt to get out of detention.

Henry's case isn't the first sexual assault involving BTC. In 2007, ICE agent Wilfredo Vazquez was transporting a mother of two who lived in the U.S. for 12 years to BTC. Along the way, Vazquez stopped at his home and raped the woman. He took a plea deal and was sentenced to a little more than seven years.

When Martinez infiltrated BTC that July evening, Marco Saavedra — a slight, soft-spoken, undocumented 22-year-old — was already inside. He had approached ICE officials at the West Palm Beach Border Patrol Station and said he was looking for a friend who had recently been detained. Saavedra played dumb, waved around his Mexican passport, and ended up detained.

Martinez and Saavedra collected stories of detainees and called their friends at the National Immigrant Youth Association, which then posted the stories on its website, along with a petition calling for an immediate review of each detainee's case. The group also helped families find reliable lawyers and handle the initial deluge of paperwork that comes with fighting deportation.

Martinez and Saavedra say they encountered more than a dozen DREAM Act-eligible youth who, under Obama's orders, shouldn't have been detained; more than 60 people with no criminal records or prior deportations; and several crime victims who should be eligible for U visas.

One female detainee, Norma Leticia Ramirez-Amaya, was returned to her cell on the same day she had emergency ovarian surgery and suffered horrible bleeding. Felipe Garcia, a Mexican living in Florida for 13 years, was pulled over and detained after dropping his wheelchair-bound son off at school. Luis Villanueva lived in the U.S. for ten years but was picked up while looking for work at the Home Depot and recently deported.

Having gathered up enough ammunition, Martinez and Saavedra launched a media blitz from within the detention facility. On August 1, about two weeks after getting detained, Martinez picked up a pay phone at BTC, called Amy Goodman of Democracy Now (a liberal media outlet), and did a live interview.

"Why were you willing to be arrested and deported to find out what was happening inside of this jail?" Goodman probed.

Martinez explained, "We were getting phones calls and email from family members of people who had been picked up and for months and months and months and months were being held here." Martinez said she was there to expose the cases of people "who don't have the spotlight and are not DREAMers... they're the people that are suffering in here in terrible conditions."

Interviews followed with Telemundo and Univision.

The morning after speaking with the Spanish-language networks, Martinez and Saavedra say they were summoned into an office where ICE officials surprised them by announcing that — voilà — they qualified for deferred action and would be released later that day. There was no mention of the media interviews.

Martinez says she asked, "What about all the other detainees? Why don't they have a private interview like this?" but the ICE officer replied that she wasn't at liberty to discuss other people's cases.

After a few hours and failed attempts at demanding the release of other detainees, Martinez says she was escorted into another office but heard a commotion in the hall and peered out the door to see a long line of detained men demanding to see Saavedra.

"The guards started freaking out," she recalls. "All hell had broken loose. Hundreds of freaking detainees were chanting 'Free at last, free at last' before switching to 'Marco, Marco, Marco,'" Martinez says.

The guards, radios squawking, forced the men into the courtyard and put the place on lockdown, she says. Martinez says she was hustled outside by a few guards to wait for her ride. Some detainees started a hunger strike soon after, she says.

Moore, the ICE official in charge of BTC, refused to comment on specifics and says only that Martinez didn't infiltrate the center; she violated immigration laws and was appropriately detained.

"We brought attention to this place," Martinez says. "But our mission is not yet accomplished. We want this place reviewed, and we want people who should be released to be released."

Finally, the persistent phone calls, letters, and sit-ins by members of her group have started to pay off. Last month, 22 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter to ICE Director John Morton demanding a "thorough case-by-case review of each individual detained at Broward Transitional Center." The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.

At the time Deutch drafted the letter, he was unaware of the sexual-assault allegations involving Henry but now, after having viewed the medical documents, says: "That kind of situation is deplorable. It underscores the urgent need for a case-by-case review of all detainees at the center. The reason that such a cross section of my colleagues from around the country signed the letter is because this situation is about more than immigration. It's about human rights and human dignity."

Moore of ICE refused to comment on the letter beyond saying it's under review in Washington by his bosses, who will make a decision on whether to act on it.

Martinez isn't sure how much longer she'll stay in Florida. The activists had planned to stay only a few weeks. Now they've been here for nearly half a year. Although they get calls every day from detainees in need of help, it's unclear how much more they can do.

If BTC is one of ICE's "model" detention facilities, Martinez can't imagine what's going on elsewhere. But she plans on finding out.

"Others are ready to infiltrate," she says. "This is something we can take to other detention centers, and will."

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