The young woman from Guatemala never thought she would be locked up so long.
“It’s been one year and one month,” Vicente said. She no longer counts the days — only the months.
In 2018, Vicente fled a physically abusive partner in rural Guatemala. One night, when his threats turned deadly, she said, she escaped in the early morning. She put her three kids in her sister’s care and headed north. The plan, she said, was to reunite with her children,—eventually—in the United States.
When Vicente, who asked to use her last name only given the uncertainty of her case, reached the US-Mexico border to seek asylum, US immigration officials took her to a detention center in Bakersfield, California, more than two hours north of Los Angeles.
The US runs the world’s biggest immigration detention system. It ballooned significantly under previous administrations, including during Barack Obama’s presidency. Yet under the Trump administration, the number of people, including children, detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reached historic highs, peaking at more than 50,000 last summer.
The rise in use of detention has spurred a backlash among states. This year California became the first state to significantly push back against immigration detention. In January, a new state law, Assembly Bill 32, went into effect that prohibits California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from entering or renewing contracts with private, for-profit prisons and immigration detention centers. The bill includes a phase-out period that ends Jan. 1, 2028. After that date, the state is prohibited from holding inmates or immigrants in the facilities. (The bill does not imply a complete closure of all immigration detention facilities, just those that are for-profit.)
“I vowed to end private prisons because they contribute to over-incarceration, including those that incarcerate California inmates and those that detain immigrants and asylum seekers.”
“I vowed to end private prisons because they contribute to over-incarceration, including those that incarcerate California inmates and those that detain immigrants and asylum seekers,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a statement. “These for-profit prisons do not reflect our values.”
California’s law mirrors proposals by Democratic presidential candidates, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who pledge to shrink the US detention system and shutter for-profit facilities.
“It’s so important for us to think outside of the box about how we can tear down this system, and not simply to work within it and work to reform it,” said Grisel Ruiz, a supervising attorney at the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit that helped push for the California law.
Ruiz points to reports of abuse at detention centers, particularly, for-profit facilities. Government inspectors and watchdog groups describe rotten food, unsanitary bathrooms and negligent medical care at these facilities, along with detained immigrants being placed in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time. Nationwide, the number of people detained on hunger strike is increasing, according to the California-based nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants.
There are also rising deaths in detention. Six people have died in ICE custody since October.
Under the Trump administration, however, trying to shut down immigration detention is not easy. In late December, just before the California law took effect, ICE signed new long-term contracts, valued at about $6.5 billion, with three private companies that run detention centers in the southern part of the state: the GEO Group, which is based in Florida; Tennessee-based CoreCivic; and Utah-based Management & Training Corporation. The contracts, in some instances, also expand currently operating facilities, adding thousands more beds for detained immigrants.
There’s now a legal battle over the California law. GEO Group sued the state over the law days before it was implemented in January. The Department of Justice also sued in January, arguing that the law “substantially obstructs the Federal Government’s housing of federal prisoners and detainees, and stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”
The government’s lawsuit against California is part of a series of new challenges against parts of the United States that support so-called “sanctuary” policies to assist or help protect undocumented immigrants. Along with the California case, Attorney General William Barr announced lawsuits against New Jersey and King County in Washington. Barr called the lawsuits “a significant escalation in the federal government's efforts to confront the resistance of 'sanctuary cities.’”
The Trump administration is also reportedly planning to send 100 elite tactical agents to some cities — those which limit local law enforcement's cooperation with ICE — in order to assist with ICE arrests. However, it is unclear when the agents would be sent out and what impact a relatively small number of them might have on the ground.
"I think from their [ICE’s] perspective, they're thinking, let's get these contracts and make them 10-year, 15-year contracts," said Silky Shah, executive director for Detention Watch Network, a nonprofit advocating to end immigrant detention. California is a critical border state and a state with a very large immigrant population. For ICE, these facilities are essential.
The Department of Homeland Security and ICE did not grant The World interviews about the California law. But ICE officials have criticized initiatives like California’s, saying that they make it harder for the agency to do its job.
“Just because you're not a criminal alien does not mean we shouldn’t enforce the law. And once you get here, if nothing ever happens to you, the pull factor is unbelievable, they're going to keep coming.”
“Just because you're not a criminal alien does not mean we shouldn’t enforce the law,” Mark Morgan, the acting ICE director last year, told PBS Newshour. “And once you get here, if nothing ever happens to you, the pull factor is unbelievable, they're going to keep coming.”
ICE also says that if its agents can’t detain immigrants in California, they will detain people — and open new detention facilities — elsewhere.
The states of Georgia, Texas and Louisiana, for example, allow private companies to run detention facilities. Those states increasingly house more of the detained population in the US, as the map of the detained immigrant population gradually shifts.
“I very much hope that other states will follow suit,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, a director at Project South, an Atlanta-based group that advocates for immigrants’ rights. “But the reality is that in the short term, at least, I think the private prison corporations will go to states and regions of the country where they feel that they’re going to find the least amount of resistance and that typically ends up being the US South.”
Immigrant rights advocates say they are encouraged, however, to see other states taking similar steps to California’s. Several states, including Illinois, Minnesota and New Mexico, have either recently legislated or are debating proposals to restrict privately run immigration detention.
Vicente sleeps in a bunk bed in a dormitory-style room with 100 other women at the Mesa Verde detention center in California. She said she spends up to 22 hours a day inside. “That is one of the toughest parts,” she said, speaking by phone from the detention facility. “We barely go outside and there is very little to do inside, apart from just sitting.”
Vicente also said that speaking on the phone with her children back in Guatemala encourages her to stay in the US and hopes for a win in her asylum case. She said that during a recent call, her 11-year-old daughter told her: “Don’t come home, mom. I know why you left,” referring to the abusive partner who Vicente fled.
While it has not been unusual for immigrants to be detained for lengthy periods of time during previous administrations, detention periods are becoming longer under Trump. Further, asylum-seekers like Vicente are being detained more regularly.
“I think her case, it really illustrates how everything is just intentionally more difficult, takes longer in the system that we have under the Trump administration.”
“I think her case, it really illustrates how everything is just intentionally more difficult, takes longer in the system that we have under the Trump administration,” said Lisa Knox, an immigration lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, the firm based in Oakland, California, representing Vicente’s case.
Knox notes that fewer judges today are releasing people like Vicente — who does not have a criminal record in the United States — from detention with an ankle monitor and a court date, existing alternatives to detention.
“We’ve seen more and more asylum-seekers who instead of being [detained] for a week or two are spending four, five, six months in detention,” Knox said.
ICE is also detaining more undocumented immigrants with no criminal history who have lived for years in the US — part of the Trump administration’s push to detain a wider swath of people.
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