When I spoke with Claudia Muñoz two weeks ago, she said she was tired of fearing the moment when authorities might arbitrarily place her in detention. Because she arrived in Texas from Mexico at the age of 16, the 27-year-old is ineligible for Obama’s deferred action for students—and that means it might be easier for her to be deported. So Muñoz decided to take the matter into her own hands, and infiltrate a detention facility. “I’m the one who’s going to determine the moment when I’m detained, and the moment when I’m released,” she said.
Muñoz was apprehended a week-and-a-half ago by customs agents near the US-Canada border, and has been working to document the stories of immigrant women housed at the Calhoun County Correctional Facility near Detroit, Michigan. She works with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), which has infiltrated detention centers in the past with the aim of organizing with detainees on the inside. The facility holds just thirteen undocumented women—among non-immigrant inmates held for more serious charges.
Since her detention, Muñoz has managed to call me collect several times to explain what she’s found. Each of those collect calls costs $9.99—paid to a private contractor that specializes in jailhouse communications services—and ends at exactly five minutes, with several precious seconds lost in the one-minute warning message. Muñoz says she was prepared for the rather deplorable conditions: it’s often cold, and the food is often inedible, so inmates and detainees go hungry.
What she didn’t expect were the daily lockdowns. Two or three times daily, immigrant detainees and inmates accused of varying crimes are locked into cells for a few hours at a time. Early on, Muñoz says her cellmate explained the solicitation charges she was facing, and asked her why she was in. When Muñoz told her it was because she didn’t have papers, her cellmate didn’t seem to get it. “But what did you do?” she questioned. Muñoz says she had to explain that simply being undocumented has landed her in jail.
Since her arrival at Calhoun, she’s been in contact with NIYA, which last week highlighted the imminent removal of Everlida Calvo Sanchez—a woman who is the primary caretaker of three children who feared being deported to Guatemala, where her own sister was murdered just two years ago. Although she was set to be deported last Friday, immigration authorities opted to allow her stay after a barrage of phone calls and petition emails demanded a halt to her deportation.
Now, NIYA is focused on more cases. Wanda Rivas Rivas was detained after a traffic stop for a broken taillight revealed she had an expired driver’s license. Rivas does have an old deportation order, but fears returning to El Salvador because of extreme violence there. Members of her entire family in the US have temporary protected status to shield them from such a circumstance.
Muñoz met Gustavo Vargas when she was first detained, and although the two are now housed in a separate facility, NIYA is brining attention to his case. Vargas, a local entrepreneur and the father to four US citizen children, was deported more than a dozen years ago but returned in order to take care of his family. The group hopes that phone calls and petition emails will make immigration authorities reconsider all of these cases.
Muñoz has had little face-to-face contact with the outside world—undocumented immigrants are not allowed to visit her in jail. But a visit from Steve Pavey changed that last week. Pavey, an applied anthropologist who works with the One Horizon Institute, become involved with undocumented youth in 2010 during a bus ride with some seventy undocumented youth from Kentucky to Washington, DC.
Pavey says he was surprised when he saw the jail—which he says looks more like a corporate business office complex than anything else. Once inside, Pavey and Muñoz shared horrific stories about women in detention. At Calhoun, nine of the thirteen women there have children under the age of ten at home. But Pavey says that what might seem like the last stop before deportation has changed with Muñoz’s presence. After Calvo Sanchez was released last week, women began to have hope about making their stories public. “Claudia Muñoz has come in on her own will, in one sense,” explains Pavey. “And that’s shining hope for other women in that space in the midst of the awful despair of family separation.”
Activists are now calling for an immediate investigation into Michigan Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Director Rebecca Adducci, and corrections officer J. Jolin, who acts as an ICE liaison. They say Adducci has willfully ignored federal directives to release those detainees with low-priority cases. Jolin, meanwhile, is a local deputy who Muñoz says has verbally harassed detainees—including threatening long prison sentences for those who don’t sign voluntary departure agreements. Jolin is also married to the federal deportation officer in charge at the jail, which may signal a conflict of interest.
Despite the conditions as she approaches two weeks into her detention, Muñoz says she’s doing fine, and it’s the other women and men being unfairly held that worry her the most.
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