Two Activists Infiltrate a Center Where Illegal Immigrants Are Held

Page 3 of 6

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."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Sweeney

Latest Stories