From the point of view of the speeding traffic on a palm-lined stretch of highway in Pompano Beach, Florida, the Broward Transitional Center could easily pass for a gated apartment complex. But behind its heavily monitored entry points, the bright pink two-story center confines approximately 600 men and 100 women in immigrant detention—and illustrates what’s at stake in the nation’s immigration battle. While some look to Washington for a grand answer that will solve the plight of the nation’s approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, others continue to focus on local efforts to stop deportations, like the ones aimed at this detention center.
“People there forget that it’s a deportation center,” says Claudio Rojas, adding: “It’s a place that breaks you down through attrition.”
The 47-year-old undocumented Argentine immigrant should know. He arrived at BTC (as the center is called) in March 2010, after his son Emiliano was stopped at a port checkpoint in Fort Lauderdale. Emiliano, 24, who is also undocumented and has no driver’s license, was asked to call his father to come pick up the car. When Claudio Rojas arrived, immigration agents immediately began questioning him about his status. Because he had paid an attorney to work on his case, and because he had a valid driver’s license, Rojas believed his family was safe. Minutes later, however, father and son were taken into detention. Like so many others at BTC, they weren’t fully aware of all their rights. They only knew they didn’t want to be deported and separated from the rest of their family.
During a recent tour of BTC, I was individually escorted through the facility by no fewer than eight men, including five Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, the assistant warden and two security guards. One said he wanted to make sure someone was behind me at all times for my own safety, even though the center does not house criminals. The security guards work for the GEO Group, which has an exclusive contract for immigrant detention in the state of Florida.
The living quarters here offer three bunk beds for every six detainees, along with a shared bathroom and a flat-screen television with some thirty channels. Men and women live in segregated quarters, and the men enjoy what seems like a large degree of autonomy. While the women mostly remain inside working on crafts or making phone calls, the men have access to outdoor basketball and volleyball courts. Bright green AstroTurf lines the large courtyard, and framed Romero Britto posters hang in the indoor hallways, the small law library, a modest chapel and the medical clinic.
Most male detainees wear orange tops and bottoms, while some dress in the yellow T-shirts that distinguish them as what officials call “volunteers.” These detainees work in the kitchen and do general maintenance, keeping things running smoothly. They get paid $1 for each day they work. And so it is that people who are ineligible to obtain work permits because of their immigration status earn a dollar a day to run the essential operations of the detention center that holds them captive.
As we come to the end of our tour in the dining area, officials point out the massive walk-in freezers and other brand-new industrial kitchen appliances—just as they’ve been pointing out the new paint jobs in some rooms, the new televisions, the construction site where a new soccer field is being installed, and the new intake room where detainees arrive. If nothing else, BTC is the site of major investment. While many wonder whether comprehensive immigration reform will be signed into law this year, the fact that BTC is pumping money into major infrastructure programs is an indication that it expects to be holding new detainee populations for quite some time. And while ICE is eager to promote the center as a kind of recreation facility for people awaiting deportation proceedings, some say the place is far less humane.
Claudio Rojas and his son say they were pressured into waiving their rights and allowing themselves to be deported. Claudio adds that although the detainees are generally well treated, the process takes so long that it wears people down until they decide to self-deport rather than fight to stay.
After Emiliano spent three months in detention, his case was dropped—but Claudio, who had spent ten years building his life in the United States, was given 120 days to leave the country. Claudio had always paid his taxes and had no criminal record. He worked in construction, and later in landscaping, and managed to buy a double-wide trailer in a quaint park in the Miramar community, where he attended church regularly and enjoyed fishing in a small vessel he’d saved up for. His wife, Liliana Caminos-Rojas, 46, had just had an eye surgery that went so poorly it put her sight in jeopardy. Their younger son, 15-year-old David, had lived almost his entire life in the United States and wanted at least to finish school here. And so Claudio made the decision to stay despite the deportation order.
The Rojas family sold their trailer for one that was half its size. They also sold the boat, their car and anything else they could in order to pay the exorbitant fees that allowed for Claudio’s release. They were already feeling a little more relaxed by February 2012, when Claudio says three immigration officers arrived on his doorstop, exiting two vehicles with their guns drawn as he took out the trash early one morning. Claudio joked with them about the guns, eventually talking two of the officers into holstering their weapons and coming into his home so he could say goodbye to Liliana and David. He would spend the next seven months in detention before being released once again. But this time, Claudio had a different kind of fight in him.
Although his own case had been dropped, the experience tied Emiliano to the broader immigration movement, and to the young activists known as “Dreamers” in particular. Once his father was put back in detention, Emiliano reached out to the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA)—a group known to draw the ire of more mainstream organizations and politicians for its militancy, but also known to get results because of it. Although Claudio Rojas had violated a deportation order, the group thought he should be eligible for release under the guidelines issued by ICE in 2011, which granted prosecutorial discretion in the cases of low-priority detainees.
NIYA helped organize a campaign to release Claudio Rojas, but it didn’t want to stop there. So many of the men and women who go through BTC—and every other low-priority immigrant detention center—are eligible for release but are nevertheless held for deportation. Claudio began using his time to organize detainees and eventually held what he calls a thirty-day spiritual fast to protest his own detention. He gathered fellow detainees’ names and facts about their cases for NIYA to publicize. And soon he would have some help on the inside.
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Marco Saavedra, 23, is an undocumented immigrant activist who hails from New York. He’s worked with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance to hold politicians accountable, to denounce increased immigration enforcement by local police, and to organize undocumented people to advocate for themselves. A place like BTC presented a unique challenge for NIYA: in order to organize the low-priority detainees being held there and inform the public about them, it would be necessary to infiltrate the facility—but the risk of doing so was deportation. Saavedra weighed his options and trusted that if he was detained, NIYA would help him get out.
Saavedra turned himself in at a Border Patrol station and found himself at BTC a few hours later. He sought out Claudio Rojas, and the two worked together to create intake lists. After NIYA got the lists, it promoted nearly seventy cases of low-priority detainees and secured several releases. Although Claudio’s case dragged on for months, he was eventually released after NIYA persuaded Florida Congressman Bill Nelson to support his case. Claudio is now preparing to obtain a work permit, though he remains in a sort of legal limbo: careful to keep every appointment set for him by the federal government, but unsure whether that same government will return him to BTC for deportation once more. Saavedra, meanwhile, was released a few weeks after he was detained. His case has been moved to New York, where he’s lived nearly his entire life. He heads to court in late February.
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Immigrant advocates in Washington, meanwhile, are holding on to the promise of comprehensive immigration reform. In the wake of November’s election results, in which Latino voters showed their strength, they believe there is real momentum developing for a bill that offers the nation’s 11 million undocumented people a clear path to citizenship. The movement’s goals include bolstering protections for workers’ rights, as well as family reunification, allowances for future flows of immigrants, and an end to abusive enforcement.
At the same time, advocates are fighting against the inclusion of harsh measures like hefty fines, English language requirements and increased enforcement in immigration legislation. The blueprint for “tough but fair” reform issued by a bipartisan group of senators on January 28 included all of those elements. Indeed, some worry that the climate is still too hostile to prevent the inclusion of punitive measures in any comprehensive bill that can make it through both houses of Congress—as evidenced by the GOP’s negative reaction to the president’s proposal, which does not include an increased border security requirement. “It’s gotten so bad that you can’t even say the word ‘amnesty,’ ” Saavedra warns. For these reasons, he and some other Dreamers would rather see a more piecemeal approach to immigration reform while they focus their efforts on demanding the release of detainees like Claudio Rojas. (Many Republicans, meanwhile, favor a piecemeal approach for very different reasons.) Those who favor a comprehensive bill—including other undocumented young people, mainstream immigrants’ rights groups and labor unions—maintain that it is the best hope of obtaining relief for the greatest number of undocumented people.
As this debate plays out in Washington, the forced removal of undocumented immigrants is at an all-time high. “Obama is leaving behind a disastrous legacy of deportation. We’re pushing for campaigns so that people are not turned over to ICE to begin with,” says Sarahí Uribe, East Coast organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
That local focus was vibrantly illustrated at BTC this past summer. And so, even as immigrant advocates hold out hope for a viable federal resolution, and BTC invests in improving its facilities to accept more detainees, groups like the National Immigrant Youth Alliance continue to put their bodies on the line—even though, by risking deportation, its members have everything to lose.
Also in This Forum
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Mark Hertsgaard: “Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama”
Laura Flanders: “Demanding Women”
Kristen Gwynne: “Who Will Legalize Pot Next?”
John Nichols: “The Election Reform Moment?”