On the dirt-road outskirts of the border town of Ojinaga, Mexico, Carlos Aguirre-Venegas’ family gathered last fall in a small church to remember him. It had been a year since Carlos had died, four days before his 31st birthday in October 2014. In the front pew, his wife, Berenice Venegas, held tightly to their three young children as her tears ran through her makeup. The oldest child, 7-year-old Mia, wanted to know when her father would return from heaven. She slid from her mother’s lap to kiss her father’s photograph, resting on the podium beside a pastor.
In his own childhood, Carlos was a quiet boy with a commanding frame. He longed to follow his aunt, Ana Lujan to her home in Midland, Texas, and as a teenager he began trying to do so without a visa. Not long after he turned 17, US border agents caught him on his first attempt. He tried twice more before finally arriving—exhausted, his feet covered in blisters, but his eyes still gleaming—at Ana Lujan’s door in late 2000. “He had made it, and he was never going back,” Lujan said.
Yet over the next 11 years, Carlos was deported at least five times, and each time he came back to Texas.
On one of his returns to Mexico, Carlos met Berenice. She was two years older than he, confident, and the holder of a green card. They fell in love and as they built their family, he found devotion like none he’d known.
He worked as a roofer in West Texas and drove long distances for jobs, which put him at risk for being picked up. In August 2011, Aguirre-Venegas was jailed for violating parole for a four-year-old arrest for drug possession. Thanks to a program that engages local police departments in immigration enforcement, he was flagged as undocumented and referred to federal prosecutors. A federal judge sentenced him to 13 months years in federal prison for illegal reentry. (See our story FAQ for an explanation of how and when border crossing became a criminal, rather than civil, offense.)
After his time in federal prison, Carlos was deported once again, and he and Berenice considered whether he should remain in Ojinaga this time. They knew another return could mean more time in prison, and that if he remained free in Ojinaga, she’d continue to visit him there regularly, as she’d been doing since his release and deportation. But when Berenice became pregnant, Carlos knew they had to reunite the family. “He was never going to stop crossing, and I was never going to go over” to Ojinaga for good, Berenice said. He crossed successfully, and resumed his life and work in Texas. Then, in September 2013, he was pulled over again, as he drove from a get-together at his aunt’s house to check on Berenice, who was just days from her due date. He’d been drinking and was arrested. Immigration agents in the Midland County jail flagged him again and referred him to a federal judge. Carlos was remanded to federal prison for another 14 months.
The Bureau of Prisons sent Carlos to Eden Detention Center in central Texas. The facility, one of 11 private federal prisons used only to hold noncitizens, is run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Immigrant- and prisoner-rights advocates have long warned that these prisons are in crisis—stripped down, separate, and unequal facilities where inmates frequently suffer without the medical care that they need. But a trove of more than 9,000 pages of medical files I obtained clarify the scope of this neglect. They expose dozens of deeply questionable deaths inside the facilities, including several cases in which care was flagged as inadequate by the contractors’ own mortality reviews.