Arali was at home with her three-year-old son, Jose, when she got a call from Suffolk County Jail, a correctional facility about half an hour from her apartment in Framingham, Massachusetts. Her husband, Milton, was on the other end of the line. In tears, Milton explained to her that he had been detained after being in a car that was pulled over for a minor traffic violation.
Both Milton and Arali are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Milton migrated to the United States at twenty-one years-old in 2005 following a hurricane that devastated his farm and much of Guatemala’s highland region, leaving him without a source of income to support his two children. Since then, Milton’s family back in Guatemala has been overwhelmed by the drug and gang-related violence that has ravaged the country over the last three decades. Drug traffickers recently killed Milton’s cousin. For Milton, deportation could mean risking death.
Milton, who prefers to use only his first name because of his open immigration case, was carpooling with his friend when a state policeman pulled them over on Highway 495, near his home. The police officer said the car’s stickers had expired. He asked Milton, who was in the passenger seat, for identification and Milton handed him an ID from the Guatemalan consulate. Shortly after, Milton says the police officer told him, “ICE is looking for you.”
What he didn’t know was that ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had issued a deportation order for him. These orders are relatively common. They instruct immigrants to appear in court at some undetermined time and place, and further instructions are, in theory, supposed to reach the immigrant by mail. This often does not happen. In Milton’s case, the police officer arrested him and took him to Suffolk County Jail, where five hours after his arrest he was finally given a chance to call his wife. “What are we going to do?” Arali asked him in tears over the phone. “What’s going to happen to us?”
During the following four months that Milton was detained at Plymouth County Detention Center, phone calls were his single lifeline to fighting deportation and talking with his wife and son Jose, who was told his father was away for work. But that lifeline came with a heavy price. Each of these calls cost about $7, according to Milton and Arali. Every eight days or so, Arali would deposit about $75 in an account to pay for the phone calls. Because of Jose, Arali didn’t think twice about the cost. “Milton would say, ‘Don’t deposit any more money. You need that for other things,’” Arali, 28, explains. “I would tell him, ‘I need to.’ I couldn’t find the words to tell [our son] what was happening.”
Arali and Milton are just two of thousands of undocumented immigrants across the United States who are charged exorbitant rates for calls from county jails that contract with ICE to hold immigrant detainees. About 50 percent of all immigrant detainees are held in county jails, according to ICE, and many of these cash-strapped jails, like Plymouth County Detention Center, have sought to raise revenue through contracts with phone companies that charge excessive rates and kick back part of the profits. Immigrant detainees end up paying the same inflated telephone rates charged to their citizen inmate counterparts, but unlike jail inmates charged with a crime, immigration detainees don’t have access to court-appointed attorneys. This means they are responsible for finding an attorney or representing themselves, both tasks that require affordable phone access.