In 2008, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened Otero County Processing Center, which can hold almost 1,100 people. Undocumented immigrants are brought to this detention facility from many cities in the U.S., and they hail from many countries.
When the center opened three years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico fielded calls from advocates who were worried about the treatment of people held there. Eventually, the ACLU began working on behalf of immigrants stuck in detention beyond the six-month limit established by the Supreme Court. As a result of that work, clients, family members and lawyers reached out to the civil rights organization with other concerns. For several months in 2009 and 2010, the ACLU-NM Regional Center for Border Rights was able to talk to those within the center's walls. More than 200 immigrants were interviewed.
Emily Carey, program coordinator for that Las Cruces-based ACLU-NM office, says the term "detention center" is misleading. "I think it's really a misnomer to cover up the fact that these facilities really appear to be prisons." Illegal immigration is a federal and civil violation. “So it's an administrative violation for not having proper paperwork," Carey explains. The goal of immigrant detention is to ensure that people show up for their court hearings, she adds, and if they're ordered removed, that they leave the country.
Interviews with immigrants culminated in a report released by the ACLU’s Border Rights office earlier this year. It outlines poor conditions at the processing center, including inadequate medical care regardless of the severity of the illness. Muslims report poor access to religious services and requirements of their religion. Dietary needs are not met, according to the report. Correctional officers use segregation—similar to solitary confinement—as a threat, detainees say, and they're afraid to speak up about mistreatment. Gay and transgender asylum seekers report sexual harassment and assault.
Carey says there's been some progress since the report was released in January. She’s gone to the local ICE office to make recommendations. "We're still talking. We communicate. That's been a positive development," she says.
ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok told the Alibi in an email that Director John Morton announced several reforms to the detention system in August 2009. The changes still allow ICE “to maintain a significant, robust detention capacity to carry out serious immigration enforcement,” he writes. Part of the detention overhaul includes working with non-governmental agencies, such as the ACLU, he adds. “ICE continues to prioritize the health and safety of detainees in our custody while increasing federal oversight and improving the conditions of confinement within the detention system.”
Carey spoke with the Alibi about conditions at the facility and the process of interviewing detainees.
What civil rights do illegal immigrants have? Do they have the same rights as the rest of us?
Yes. And this is a common misconception, but everybody who is within the boundaries within the United States has rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. It's very clear. Where it says "citizen" it means "citizen." And really, the only things that wouldn't apply to someone who's undocumented are provisions about voting where the Constitution specifically states it.
The right to free speech and freedom of opinion and freedom of religion, the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, the right to remain silent, due process—all of those are rights that people have regardless of their immigration status.
Why are these facilities usually built so remotely?
That's a good question. Anything that I would say would be speculation.
A lot of advocates have been concerned about the transfer of immigrants from the places where they have been living to remote areas where there is lack of access to legal resources, to legal support. They're far from family and witnesses, and they're far from maybe paperwork that they need.
ICE is actively looking to address that issue so that people can—particularly if they're from places like Los Angeles, or New York or Boston—stay in those areas. A large number of people that we see at the Otero facility have been transferred from Los Angeles—you know, which is very challenging. They come to Otero and are, of course, faced with very limited resources.
Oversight and accountability are among our greatest concerns with the facility. One of the main points that we argue in the report is that the use of private contractors and subcontractors to operate immigration detention facilities inherently creates barriers to oversight and accountability.
Is there any way to tell if ICE is enforcing rules regarding humane treatment?
So ICE has a series of detention standards. But they're not legally enforceable. When they're not legally enforceable, there's no teeth to them. They sort of serve as guidelines, and there's no real way to ensure that the standards are being followed appropriately.
Were you taken aback by any of the things that you heard or saw when you were conducting these interviews?
I think I've been in there for so long that things that should surprise me probably don't surprise me as much as they used to. One thing that definitely concerned us most when we were in the facility was access to appropriate health and medical treatment. I would say the overuse and arbitrary use of segregation for an array of reasons stood out, and the treatment we were hearing about from correctional officers.
The idea of putting someone who is an asylum seeker—who maybe even was imprisoned and tortured in their home country—into detention is shocking. They come to the U.S. to seek assistance, a place they've heard is the land of the free, and they have connotations of the values of what comes with that. The fact that we're arbitrarily putting people in segregation, the fact that the treatment that has been reported about correctional officers is often abusive—it just flies in the face of what we as a nation value.
Do you think there's a chance for reform given the political climate?
I would say that, again, I do see ICE leadership taking concrete steps toward reform, and I'm hopeful that those steps can continue and that we can continue to progress. But certainly, we're going to continue to monitor the reform process and urge things that haven't been looked at—such as moving away from privatized facilities, such as having legally enforceable detention standards—and really looking at community-based alternatives. Again, I want to give credit where credit is due. But we need to be vigilant to ensure that they keep making progress in a positive direction.