I am driving to Florence, Arizona about one hour plus northeast of Tucson with Marjorie King, a friend of Nancy John's in Portland, OR. Marjorie called me the day before to ask if I would like to visit a detention center on Thursday (2/12/15). "Sure," I said, "as I cannot gain entrance to the Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington."
Marjorie hands me a letter from a Mexican man Raul who had responded to a Christmas card sent to him by Casa Mariposa, a local immigrant support community in Tucson. He asked for a visit as well as help with his court date in mid-January. I was to talk with him while Marjorie who lived and worked in China is visiting a detainee male from China.
Florence is absolutely surreal - according to the web, Florence has more than nice prison facilities ranging from county, state, federal and private corporations. I saw five: Arizona State Prison that houses death row prisoners; the Pinal County Youth Justice Center, Central Arizona Detention Center which I think is the same as the ICE operated federal center and then, a huge private prison complex run by CCA.
We drive up to the ICE Detention facility (FDC) and show the two letters with the detainees name and number. "Oh, lady, Raul is not here. He has been moved to the CCA immigration/prison center. You need to go here and ask them if you can see him." As ICE visiting hours do not begin until 12:30PM, we drive over the CCA facility. We enter and the administrative office person asks for identification and the names of the detainee or prisoner we wish to see. She checks the computer and yes, Raul is there but I cannot see him, because I am not on his pre-approved list of visitors. "How do I get on the list?" I ask. "Well, you will have to write and request that he add you." Marjorie, more experienced than I am, explains that we are part of an interfaith group that visits detainees and has an arrangement with the warden at the CCA facility in Eloy to visit without prearrangement. "Sorry, ladies, our warden is away until March so there is noone here who can help you." She mentions that there is a chaplain. We ask if she can call him to move our request along. No luck, the chaplain basically repeats the sho ame message over the phone to the receptionist.
It dawns on me as we leave the facility that this is primarily a prison and ICE just rents out beds for their detainees. Years ago I had tried to visit a federal prisoner and was told "NO" unless he had requested me as a visitor. HMMM.
We return to the ICE facility where we surrender our driver's license; pack up purses and phones in the car and then are admitted through a gate. A guard guides us to the admission area where we go through a body scan - oh, yes, we have identification badges as visitors. The ICE staff are friendly and joke with two women who are visiting the husband and father - evidently, they have been here before.
The visiting room is well-lit, wooden tables and chairs. We surrender the key to the lock box with the car key and approach a very young Chinese man who is waiting with a big smile on his face. It was an unusual conversation among the three of us as I do not speak a word of Chinese. Mr. T. had been picked up in Houston, TX - he and his fiancee had flown to Mexico City from Beijing, China in mid-May. He as apprehended and locked up on June 4, 2014 - almost nine months in detention. His girlfriend was pregnant and she was released to his two U.S. citizen sisters and he is now the father of a three month baby girl - a fact of which he is extremely proud.
Periodically Marjorie would translate the conversation; I was the notetaker; and Mr. T. would smile at me and say Buenos dias, como esta? I laughed and responded but he just shook his head. He told us that he is learning a little Spanish and English in detention as there are only three other Chinese speakers in the facility. Marjorie had brought a business card of a Chinese-speaking immigration lawyer in Tucson and urged him to contact her. It was unclear why he was still held in the center. Evidently, ICE feels that he could go underground and just disappear in the country. However, three of his family are U.S. citizens who could conceivably sponsor him.
He had tears in his eyes when we stood up to leave. Visits mean a great deal to people held in detention, Marjorie explained. I am not quite sure what all the ICE staff do - there were six people at the desk in the visitation area - joking and talking and going in and out of the room. When we left through the metal detector again, I saw ten ICE staff gathered around this area - perhaps, it was shift change time. Our ICE escort told us that there are four hundred beds in their facility but it is not enough so they rent beds in the nearby CCA prison. She assured us that the ICE detainees are in a separate unit and not in with the criminals.
The next day I went to the monthly meeting Casa Mariposa has with a lawyer from the Florence Project. http://www.firrp.org A Salvadoran man who recently was freed on a bond through Casa Mariposa shared his story with us. He expressed his appreciation for the visits - nos da luz de esparanza y luz al fin de tunel The visits give us hope and we see light at the end of the tunnel.
He described his own experience in detention in Florence - the ICE facility was a five star hotel with good food and pretty decent treatment but then he was transferred to the CCA facility where the food was bad, and the guards treated us like criminals.
How can we help? People in detention need legal advice or good advice within 72 hours of detention - "is that possible?," he asks. The lawyers at Florence Project are overwhelmed and the answer was uncertain. He continued, " the majority of detainees do not know their rights; they are frightened and do not know whom to trust." He added, "the Guatemalans usually ask to be deported after eight days.? "Why", I asked. They are isolated in holding tanks or cells where no one speaks their language - usually one of the twenty-two indigenous languages in Guatemala. pr
I am saddened by his and other's reality. There are so many groups in Tucson doing good work - in the desert, visiting detainees, caring for mothers and children who are released by ICE to travel to reunite with a family member BUT with a court date and finding people lost in the system for their frantic families in Central America or elsewhere . All this energy going in to stop bad policies that force people into expensive detention centers paid for by us, U.S. citizens. AFSC has done some great work on documenting private prisons. http://www.afsc.org
Also, read the NY Times article on Family Detention Centers (Feb. 8,2015) it will make your hair stand on end as it is such a clear violation of human rights. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/magazine/the-shame-of-americas-family-detention-camps.html?emc=eta1&_r=0
Yes, the sun is shining today in Tucson, Arizona after a rain storm last night. I am buoyed by the good people I am meeting - immigrants and U.S citizens who care and who are acting. I hope that our voices can be heard in Washington, DC!!!
My life has been about crossing borders and cultures and building bridges across the boundaries that normally divide. Have you crossed any borders in your life?