On Thursday, we visited Florence, Arizona, where half the population are inmates. Before we left, I heard one of our teachers asking the other if she knew where we needed to go when we got to Florence. I thought to myself, What does he mean, where are we going? We’re going to the prison, aren’t we? I learned when we arrived in Florence that Riley’s question was extremely well-founded: there are (at least) four different detention centers in Florence, which is located in – this seems too tragically poetic to be true, but it is – Pinal County.
We received a tour of a facility run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is a detention center for people who have violated immigration law and are waiting for their cases to be processed by the courts. It is one of 6 immigrant detention facilities run by ICE around the country – the rest are run by private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America. There are 300 facilities in total, holding 35,000 people in detention at any given time. Because the people in these facilities are not detained as punishment for being convicted of crimes, they live in dormitories, and they are not compelled to work. Most have no criminal history, and none are considered “dangerous criminals.” The facility was described to us as “more like a closed college campus” than what we might have seen in movies or TV. It’s true that it wasn’t like what I’d seen in Law and Order or Locked Up Abroad or on the tour of Alcatraz, but I wouldn’t describe it as my experience of college, either. No one marches me to mealtime or regulates if I can have clothes under my bed, and I also have the freedom to leave when it pleases me.
And that detail, the freedom to leave, is key. Yes, you might be thinking, duh, Maddie, of course they can’t leave – they’re detained. But precisely because they haven’t been convicted of anything, people in immigrant detention facilities don’t have sentences. They don’t know when they’ll be able to leave. The head of the detention center said to us, “We’re America; I can’t keep someone locked up forever,” but what he didn’t say is that he can keep someone locked up indefinitely. The reason why people are being detained in the ICE facility in Florence is because they are waiting on the outcome of their case, which will end in their being either released in the US or deported to their country of origin. Some cases are decided quickly, within a matter of days, but others take years. This uncertainty creates a huge amount of psychological stress, often more than that of people serving a sentenced amount of time in a less “college-like” prison.
It’s also important to note that the people being detained in Arizona were not necessarily apprehended in Arizona. ICE is a federal operation. Where people are detained has much more to do with bed space than geographical location. Someone taken into custody in New Jersey is likely to wind up in Louisiana or somewhere else in the South; someone detained in Seattle might easily end up on one of ICE’s two daily flight loops in the western US, bound for Florence. The geographical distance people have from their homes can also have an impact on the result of their case and their psychological wellbeing. A separation of thousands of miles can make important documents harder to obtain, as well as testimony from individuals who can help establish residence or basis for asylum.
We met with two women from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project after our tour. The Florence Project was started in the 80’s, when a federal judge felt extremely uncomfortable deporting people who had had to represent themselves in an unfamiliar and complicated legal system. Because immigrant law is civil law, people in immigration court do not have the right to a state-appointed attorney. Immigration law is also one of the most complicated and confusing types of US law, a close second to tax law. Thus, many people in immigration court are don’t have the grasp of the legal system to represent themselves effectively. The Florence Project provides people with legal information to help them better understand their rights and their cases. This is critical for the people that they assist, but there are thousands more detained people than the Florence Project and other organizations like it can assist. Usually, the only person paying attention to a detainee’s case is their deportation officer, whose goal is pretty clearly indicated by their name.
We left Florence, passing the Detention Center run by the Corrections Corporation of America and the Pinal County Adult Detention Center, and some other big, small-windowed buildings surrounded by fences and barbed wire. I thought back to our guide’s firm stance that his job was apolitical – it was only his job to enforce the law. He wasn’t about to determine which “alien” should or shouldn’t be in his detention center. He said he liked to keep things in very strict order in his center and prevent hierarchies from forming amongst the detainees, because, he told us, “When you give someone power over someone else, they tend to abuse it.”
I almost audibly laughed when he said that, because the absurdity of his feeling entitled to make that sort of statement without acknowledging the complete power he has over the lives of every single person in his detention facility was too much. Yeah, this detention center didn’t look like anything I’d seen on TV, but it still had locks, it still had guards, it still had blue and orange jumpsuits. Is that not an abuse of ICE’s power over people who come here without documents? Why should these people, most of whom have no criminal history, be locked in the desert behind layers of barbed wire, marching from meal to dorm to field, waiting to see if they’ll be released or put on a plane? So their deportation officers can make sure they get to their deportation hearings, and then, unless they’ve managed to establish their right to be here (and I don’t have the statistics on this, but I don’t imagine very many aren’t deported), on a plane home to their country of origin. It’s another angle of the same racist and dehumanizing mechanism that Streamline feeds.