A Sunday visit to a privately operated US immigration detention center

The World
Two boys on a bus

The day starts at 5:30 a.m., when about 10 people meet in a parking lot in Phoenix and climb into a white van. They're headed to Eloy Detention Center, about an hour away.

The center is one of 637 facilities in the United States holding, detaining or processing immigrants. In fiscal year 2015, 325,209 people were processed through these facilities — mostly to be deported, but also because they were released on bond or because they were found to have a lawful right to stay in the country. Most of the facilities are operated by private contractors, including Corrections Corporation of America, which runs Eloy. Most people are inside for minor, non-violent crimes.

The people gathered in the van this morning have plenty in common. They share Mexican heritage, have lived in the US for years and do manual work, like cleaning houses and pools, fixing cars or taking care of the elderly. They are all off to visit a relative — a son, father, husband or wife — detained at Eloy.

They are mixed-status families split by detention, with deportation a real possibility.

There is also a practical purpose to these shared rides. Most people in the van are also undocumented and don’t have driver’s licenses, so Puente Arizona, an immigrant-rights group, coordinates the Sunday trip. Today’s volunteer driver is Reyna Montoya, herself Mexican American, who came to the US as a child.

Puente Arizona also advocates for better health and safety conditions at Eloy. From 2013 to July 2016, 162 people have died in immigration custody across the country, according to records released by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Fourteen of those people died while at Eloy, five of them by suicide.

Many organizations have questioned the medical care provided at the facility. An internal review found, for example, that in the May 2015 death of 31-year-old José de Jesús Deniz Sahagun the facility had numerous shortcomings in medical and mental health care, as well as suicide prevention.

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According to ICE data obtained and analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, about 7,000 people were detained at Eloy in fiscal year 2015. The facility holds about 1,500 people — men and women — in minimum and medium security conditions. It has remained close to full since 2010, according to ICE.

Families, like those I met, must set aside most of the day for visiting their relatives. The process involves moving through a series of waiting rooms over several hours until a family’s turn comes up. You’re also stripped of all belongings before you are allowed your one-hour visit in a room filled with tables and vending machines.

I ate lunch with one family visiting a man, Miguel, who has been in Eloy for more than a year. He has lived in the US for 16 years, has been deported before, and was handed over to immigration officials after being stopped for a traffic violation, he says.

Miguel’s two sons started their visit by heading to the vending machines, like everyone else, because it’s the only food available. The offerings are basic: Doritos, bottled water, Coke, sandwiches. No matter. It's an important weekly visit. The younger son, German, in seventh grade, carefully laid out the food from the vending machine, setting the table for a Sunday meal of sorts.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 5.1 million children in the US live with an undocumented immigrant parent. That means, as is the case for German, they live with the possibility that their parents will be detained or deported. But, during the family's visit, there was no talk about that. Rather, they discussed football practice and how homework was going. Normal family life.  

The day ended at 5 p.m., after all of the families had wrapped up their visits. Next week, they will meet again.

Eloy Detention center
The Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona, about one hour outside Phoenix. As seen from inside a van of visitors looking to meet detainees.Monica Campbell/PRI

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