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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 344 | Marzo 2010


Latin America

Twelve Days on the Road to Rejection

The emigrants’ road of rejection starts at the US embassy in their country, where they queue up hoping against hope for a visa to a dream. It moves to migration control in US entry points and US streets, which extends to judicial control in the courts. It reappears in street and workplace roundups, culminating in jailing and penitentiary control and often ends in deportation. I spent 12 days on this road, and this is what I saw and heard.

José Luis Rocha

On the run-up to Mardi Gras—the “Fat Tuesday” carnival the day before Lent—New Orleans Jesuit and lawyer Tom Greene organized an unusual workshop that had an incredible impact. He invited four migration-related activists from Latin America and the Caribbean to join him on the tortuous road to rejection for emigrants to and immigrants in the United States of America. The legal aid teams of Loyola University’s Jesuit Social Research Institute have been tracking that road for years now to learn the real situation of undocumented migrants and provide them services.

The French Quarter—which bears picturesque testimony to the fertile and conflictive mixture of different waves of immigrants—was sated with necklaces and garlands, music and liquor, as it prepared to celebrate the long-awaited victory of the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl 2010. Eschewing that scene, we started our tour of the humiliating scenes of roundups, inflexible migration courts, detention centers bedecked with barbed-wire, hounded shelters and dichotomous border cities, all of them expressions of the US desire to close its access doors and segregate and expel the new waves of immigrants. This article describes what we saw and heard with the express intent to shock the peaceful conscience of those who have no idea of these degrading practices, to shake up those who view them with indifference, to ridicule those who design and apply them and to vindicate those who suffer them.

Seeking a visa for a dream

The road to rejection starts in the countries of origin. The centrifugal force of xenophobia, which opposes the centripetal force that attracts the populations of the periphery towards the heart of the system, is expressed there in the increasingly enormous and lucrative industry of denying US entry visas. In Managua, Nicaragua, masses of people aspiring to enter the United States queue up at the US embassy from Monday to Friday. There they wait with discipline under the steaming sun to apply for, receive, or in most cases be denied a visa. Many turn up but few are chosen to enter the American kingdom of God. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security registered the entry into the USA of a daily average of 2,326 citizens from all Central American countries who were granted a B-1 or B-2 visa. Those most benefited were Guatemalans, with 576 entries; Nicaragua brought up the rear with 135.

Many of those entering had had multiple visas for up to ten years. We don’t know how many visas are approved every day, but we do know that a “yes” and a “no” cost the same in this curious market: US$131 for the application and $12 to program an appointment. The embassy therefore receives a total of $1,310 for every ten applications. If we take a very conservative estimate of 100 applications a day, this adds up to $13,100, a tidy sum that in only two years has allowed them to recover the cost of the $8 million new US embassy complex. I’d bet that US embassies are the most profitable business in the universe, with clients digging deep into their pocket to pay for the coveted product whether they are granted it or not.

The high costs of this dream

The cost of visas is high and rising because the US government applies the principle of “reciprocity,” a term explained by the Bureau of Consular Affairs as follows: “Nonimmigrant visa fees are based on reciprocity. The United States strives to eliminate visa issuance fees whenever possible, but when a foreign government imposes such fees on US citizens for certain types of visas, the US government will impose a ‘reciprocal’ fee to nationals of that country for similar types of visas.” The presumed naiveté of this argument leaves us more than a little perplexed, given that, like most poor countries on the planet, Nicaragua doesn’t even require visas for US citizens, let alone one that costs anything.

After having invested over $143 dollars—plus the cost of running around and getting the required photographs and photocopies—and even being granted a visa, such lucky applicants still aren’t at the Pearly Gates. As the website of the US Embassy in Nicaragua warns, the visa does not guarantee entry: “A visa is used to request entry to the United States. At the port of entry, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official will determine whether or not an alien is admitted to the United States.”

Why is the whole process of entering the United States so complicated and full of filters? Traveling to the United States of America makes you suspect, something the US Embassy in Managua warned us about: “According to US Immigration and Naturalization laws and statutes, every applicant is presumed to be an intending immigrant until he/she establishes to the full satisfaction of the consular official at the time of interview and to the immigration officer at the time of application for admission at any port of entry that he/she is entitled to non-immigrant status and intends to return to his/her own country after completing the purpose of the trip to the United States.”

To prove their desire to return to their country of origin—in other words not to settle in the United States, which is after all what matters to the officials—applicants must demonstrate that they have strong links with their own country. In its visa denial section, the Bureau of Consular Affairs asks rhetorically, “What constitutes strong ties?” and answers with the following definition: “Strong ties differ from country to country, city to city, individual to individual. Some examples of ties can be a job, a house, a family, a bank account. ‘Ties’ are the various aspects of your life that bind you to your country of residence: your possessions, employment, social and family relationships.”

Poor people, landless people, single people, young people, illiterate people, orphans and certainly all of us who live in countries where it’s impossible to have long-term plans have therefore not developed strong enough ties to dissipate the suspicion that we may have the “criminal intention” of settling in the United States.

The same happened to
Bertold Brecht and Hanna Arendt

It was just as hard, albeit much cheaper, to set foot and settle in the United States in the past. German writer Bertolt Brecht entered—ironically—from the USSR in 1941 but was only barely tolerated for six years. The Hollywood scripts he wrote were invariably rejected by the big producers, and in 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee hounded him with none-too-friendly hearings, obliging him to flee to Switzerland.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt had more luck, but her shining academic credentials did nothing to pave her way to the kind of speedy process that might have been expected. In fact, the US government took 10 years to grant her citizenship. For several years she was in the precarious position of being stateless. With a doctorate and several books to her credit, Arendt had to wait 12 years before obtaining a temporary professorship at New York’s Brooklyn College. In “We Refugees,” she describes the unstable situation of German Jews living in the United States in 1943: “But since patriotism is not yet believed to be a matter of practice, it is hard to convince people of the sincerity of our repeated transformations. This struggle makes our own society so intolerant; we demand full affirmation without our own group because we are not in the position to obtain it from the natives. The natives, confronted with such strange beings as we are, become suspicious; from their point of view, as a rule, only a loyalty to our old countries is understandable. That makes life very bitter for us.” As she stated earlier in the essay, “The conclusion we drew from such unpleasant experiences was simple enough. To be a doctor of philosophy no longer satisfied us; and we learned that in order to build a new life, one has first to improve on the old one. A nice little fairy tale has been invented to describe our behavior; a forlorn émigré dachshund, in his grief, begins to speak: ‘Once, when I was a St. Bernard…’”

Controlling temporary migrants

Migrants don’t just meekly accept the restrictions. They are experts at overcoming obstacles, deceiving border patrols and squeezing through legal chinks. Temporary worker visas offer a chance to enter and then remain in the country. The Central American countries, from Anglophone Belize to the narrow strip of Panama, managed to place 18,847 temporary workers there in 2008. Of this total, 33.6% entered under seasonal worker agreements, while a privileged 14.3% entered through internal transfers in transnational companies. A further 8% fell into the category of athletes or artists, 2% were classified as investors and businesspeople, and 1% were defined as workers of “extraordinary ability.”

Temporary worker visas have been bitterly questioned. Some fear an “ominous” increase in such visas. In the area of non-agricultural workers, they increased from 15,706 in 1997 to 129,547 in 2007. The Center for Immigration Studies insists on the urgent need for a change of direction in the granting of these visas. It proposes reducing the maximum initial petition validity from ten to six months to reinforce the “seasonal” nature of this kind of visa, restoring its “temporary” nature by discontinuing exten¬sions, eliminating the hiring of temporary workers in two consecutive years; refusing petitions to place workers in high-unemployment regions of the United States, ensuring that temporary workers are properly paid, and excluding both middlemen and companies that employ at least 50 workers in which the temporary workers would exceed 25% of the total workforce.

These policies scratch and scratch and scratch, but not where it itches most. In New Orleans we shared a delicious supper with the Latin American immigrants from the Mary Queen of Vietnam parish. I sat at the same table as Omar and his family, originally from Mexico. Omar entered the United States on an agricultural sector temporary worker visa, like 163,695 of his countrymen in 2008. Then he outstayed the time established for his visa and became a welder on oil tankers.

Omar had to give a lot of money to the company that hired him. Everyone does. The visa is bought from middlemen. “It’s for the procedures,” he explains. Some have to fork out between $1,200 and $5,000 for the hiring company to handle their visa. The company then ensures that they’ll get juicy contracts. Employers say they pay $50 an hour, but the workers only end up with $6 an hour. So these immigrant workers come in doubly mortgaged: with a debt for the visa procedures and a salary condemned to erosion. The salary often passes through the hands of five sub-contractors who skim off the top. It’s the trickledown effect of the sub-contracting system, in which the workers only get a tiny dribble that’s barely enough for the reproduction of the workforce.

On the street corners, waiting to be hired

Omar has been “lucky”; he’s still being exploited. Many of his colleagues are literally on the streets, hit by the crisis that followed on the heels of the great mauling by Hurricane Katrina. They can be seen in groups of 50-75 posted on five New Orleans street corners. Most are Central Americans, according to Eva San Martín, an activist who has recovered many thousands of dollars in salaries evaded by greedy bosses. Hundreds of Central Americans turn up on the street corners every day, as if on display in the opaque and blurry shop windows of a mall in decline. Many have to come for weeks before getting a contract that might last for three days or a couple of hours.

To relieve their nervous wait and immediate needs, some parishioners offer them food. The police don’t bother them. Although 10-15% of the population consists of Latino immigrants, New Orleans isn’t an official sanctuary city, like Houston and San Francisco. But at least the police chief refused to collaborate with the Department of Homeland Security, a negative response that deprives his department of the juicy funds earmarked for hunting down undocumented immigrants. That doesn’t mean his force is all sweetness and light, however. As one of the people accompanying us on the street corners told us, many police officers break the headlights of Latinos’ vehicles or spray them with alcohol so they can fine them later.

It’s a very different story to the one told by a police office of Latino origin, who we’ll call Mancuso. The picture he painted was peopled with police officers immune to the bribes Latinos accustomed to corrupt systems offer to avoid being detained or fined, and with capricious and obstinate Latinos who obstinately embrace danger by going out late at night just because they feel like buying a bottle of soda. Mancuso elicits great guffaws from his audience by imitating what he considers the moronic faces of all the dumbfounded Latinos who just can’t grasp that they’re in a country where police officers’ unpolluted moral record shines out and the tradition of justice prevails. He tends to repeat, “We’re not idiots like the police in other countries.” Maybe he just doesn’t read the newspaper reports of police corruption cases …

Judicial control and immigrant trials

We had the privilege of sampling this tradition of justice right at the heart of the system: two Justice Department courts for immigrants, one in New Orleans and the other in Houston where the judge had the deference to explain to us some of the sensitive aspects of the cases he was judging.

The atmosphere in the courts was something entirely new to our group. We didn’t really know how to take it in and classify it, with what criteria to ponder its goodness or lethality. It seemed to me like a kind of secular ceremony with many unpleasant sacred aftertastes.

There were two rows of benches in a room just under a hundred meters square. At the back, above the congregational level, the judge officiated over deportations. On a lower level, to his right, his assistant appeared in profile, shuffling the papers the judge passed her. To the judge’s left and in front of the assistant, the inexpressive interpreter was straightening her hair with her fingers. A little closer to the public and to the right, in front of the judge but with her back to us, the public prosecutor sat silently. A couple of meters to the left of her and in the same position, a tense-looking immigrant and his lawyer awaited the judge’s ritual words.

“Today, January 25, 2010, judge W, presiding over case X… Are you Mr. Y? Do you live at number x on y street? Does it have the postal code z?” Following the immigrant’s affirmative answers, the judge reviewed the papers and either programmed a new date, set bail or prescribed voluntary deportation. A few minutes were all he needed to check whether he had the documentation that supported the immigrant’s petition. He rummaged through the bundle of papers and his computer: the secret of power.

Depending on the case involved, the ritual can take longer: “Raise your right hand to take the oath. Do you swear by Almighty God to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” “Are you willing to leave the United States on the date indicated to you?” “Do you have the means to leave the country?” “Can you obtain the documents to leave?” “The government has just granted you voluntary exit. If you do not leave the country on May 26, 2010, you will not be able to enter US territory in the next x years and will lose your bail of $500. If you do not post bail the voluntary exit will be cancelled.” The judge concludes by asking: “Is there any further question?” “No, your Honor.”

In the hands of the “translator traitor”

The only time the judge smiled was when he talked to a female lawyer about the Super Bowl. The interpreter never changed her facial expression. In neither court did the interpreter look at the immigrants whose cases were being tried. They paid no attention to their gestures, which are an essential part of language that complement, emphasize, adorn, illustrate and add depth and nuance to what the verbal language is trying to communicate. The interpreters, who curiously never hesitated in their translations, lost this whole tradition of signs. Nor did they consider the need to clarify the ambiguities and polysemies inherent and omnipresent in all languages.

Interpreters who do not observe or consult the people they are translating for are losing a vital part of the information. They should have the scrupulous meticulousness of a biblical exegetes, but instead have the arrogant self-containment of a dogmatic fundamentalist. They are language fundamentalists, with the aggravating factor that their fundamentalism affects a text in which the future of human beings is at stake. In addition, they only translated the questioning between the judge and the immigrants, never the exchanges among the judge, prosecutor and lawyer. Are they not part of the ritual? Did the lawyer inform the client about all the conversations upon leaving the courtroom? And what happens if the lawyer is plotting some kind of swindle? All of this works towards the system’s complete success.

Alarmed by this and other dangers, the National Language Access Advocates Network has issued a highly critical assessment of courtroom translations. First of all, they point out that these trials fail to provide interpretation for critical encounters, and provide inaccurate interpretation, with interpreters only translating the questions or statements addressed directly at the immigrants. In one case, the attorney of a Salvadoran man almost accepted an order for removal rather than voluntary departure, which has much less dire consequences, because none of the exchanges between the lawyer and judge were translated.

Second, they observed that there was no interpretation outside the courtroom. Many immigrants with limited English proficiency are not given information in any language other than English when they arrive at the court for the first time.

And third, they noted a number of cases in which the interpretations were conducted in the wrong language. For example, on August 16, 2007, Guatemalan-born Francisco Juan Martín, who only spoke his native Kanjobal, appeared pro se at a master calendar hearing, where the court interpreter only interpreted the proceedings into Spanish. As a result, Mr. Martín did not understand the judge’s explanation that he had to apply to cancel the order for his removal on September 25, 2007. When he failed to apply on that date, he was issued the order that only a subsequent appeal was able to cancel. The Network also cited a similar case concerning a Mam-speaking Guatemalan detainee.

Its report further complained that interpreters often act unprofessionally, including engaging in private cell phone conversations while court is in session, arriving over an hour late, flipping through magazines while interpreting, and making inappropriate comments about cases and detainees after detainees are taken from the courtroom.

And finally, they noted many cases of incorrect translations. The interpreter for one Buddhist woman incorrectly paraphrased her reaction to being persecuted as “Oh, my God.” Relying on this inaccurate translation, the judge ruled that she wasn’t credible, stating that Buddhists don’t believe in God and therefore wouldn’t have used that phrase. In another case, a Spanish interpreter from Spain mistranslated a Honduran woman who had a miscarriage after her husband beat her, wrongly stating that the woman had an abortion. In view of such evidence, the US courts can be an absurd and pernicious incarnation of the saying “Translator, traitor!”

A perplexing conversation with the judge

Writer Gore Vidal claims that two-thirds of all the lawyers on our small planet are Americans. And now the immigration courts are added to their numerous labor market niches. Many lawyers defend immigrants on a pro bono basis, but a growing group sees them as another opportunity offered up by the system. Unfortunately, lawyers are almost essential. The Houston judge explained to us that statistics show immigrants have a greater probability of success in their trials if they are represented by lawyers. But he also mentioned the difficulties some lawyers can create: “When doctors make a mistake, it ends in a burial. When migration makes a mistake, it ends up in deportation.”

A sum-up of his arguments showed us the almost unshakeable faith this judge has in the US justice system. We asked questions and he gave precise answers: Why do so many applications fail? “Most applications fail because the standards are very high. The decisions are limited to what the case has presented. The judge’s opinion doesn’t matter. The idea is to apply the law in an equitable way.”
Can the government remove anyone it wants to? “The government cannot remove a person unless an immigration judge has ordered it.”

Why do you punish human beings in this way? “The expulsion order is not considered a punishment, but rather a natural consequence of the migratory status.”

Given that US law establishes that the interest of minors must prevail, why are parents separated from children as a result of deportations? “There are cases in which children are removed. And there are also cases in which parents are removed while their children remain in the United States. Sometimes the best thing for the child might be removal. Sometimes the best thing might be to remain in the United States, because it offers many benefits to children born in its territory that their parents can’t offer them in their country of origin.”

If the system seeks to avoid discretion and limit itself to the demands of a rule of law, how come the application failure rates vary so much from one court to another? “Sometimes the courts receive more cases from countries where conditions are harder and for which the government of the United States has special policies. For example, we currently have them for Haitians due to the earthquake. A court that receives many cases involving Haitians might have a higher approval rate than a court that receives many cases involving Hondurans. Finally, no system is perfect. There might be variations due to the perception of each judge. Some are harder than others. We’re human, but we try to do our best.”

That judge came across as a measured and refined man. He gave very exact instructions in a very amiable tone to the immigrant whose case he was trying in our presence. He ensured that the blurred documentation from his file was replaced with a clear copy. During this dialogue with the judge I experienced a growing degree of perplexity. How could this good man be so sure he was doing the right thing? The system of exclusion needs people who are sure they’re complying with their duty, who aren’t troubled in the slightest by bad wil; they are essential for the machinery that expands its less refined and measured tentacles everywhere.


Where do these courts get their raw material from? Mainly from roundups, from hunts to track down people. We went to the scene of one of these in Laurel, Mississippi, where we were able to talk to some of the traumatized victims.

On August 25, 2008, Howard Industries, which manufactures electrical transformers and is one of the region’s biggest employers, was the scene of the largest workplace roundup in US history: almost 600 workers from Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Mexico and Peru. It was preceded a few months earlier by a roundup at a factory in Postville, Iowa, where some 400 workers were detained. In the Howard Industries case, around a hundred, many of them mothers, were promptly released for humanitarian reasons after being fitted with electronic monitoring bracelets. We talked to them and some of the other “survivors.”

Felipe, a young man just over 20 years old was the first to speak up: “I left my house that day wearing a sports shirt. I have a tattoo on my neck that says ‘Made in Mexico,’ but I put on a t-shirt with a collar because I was going to go out with a girl after work. It was just as well. I took the highway and when I got to the factory I went into the shipping part, where I work in quality control. Suddenly I heard people saying, ‘Here comes the migra [immigration authorities]!’ Then this blond guy, this gringo, appeared, saying ‘All of you go to the east side of the factory!’ I turned around and saw a lot of people running. We ran all over the place, like a herd of startled animals. I grabbed my driver’s license. A lot of people hid in the cupboards and one person fought with an officer.

“They made us turn around, and started pulling out anyone who looked Hispanic. They identified them by speaking to them in English: “Are you a citizen?” If they didn’t answer, then they spoke to them in Spanish. So I only talked to them in English. I pulled my collar so far up that after it was all over my friends dubbed me The Penguin. All of the officers were looking at me, but I acted like I didn’t understand Spanish. While they were busy marking us with yellow bands, I figured out what to tell them: that I was from Brownsville, Texas, and had come to Laurel to finish my high school. When it was my turn, I gave them my license and ID. I told them I’d been working here two years and had been in the United States for 12. They put a blue bracelet on me and let me go. It was very sad to see the lack of solidarity of some of the employees. Some of them were saying: ‘Look, there’s someone over here.’ They betrayed people who were hiding in the pipes. It’s very painful to experience something like that. Nobody deserves to go through it. I think that if some Americans went through it they’d behave just the same as we did.”

Julia opened her contribution with the plain truth: “I’m not here for the fun of it. I came to work. The officers surrounded us that morning. We didn’t know where to run. Some hid under the machines. The officers hauled them out by their feet and pushed them around. At 11, they gave us a cookie and a bottle of water. But we weren’t hungry; all we wanted was for them to let us go. Why us, if we didn’t come here to take anything from anyone in this country? We put up with it because we’ve all got someone in our country we have to fight for.”

“They were going to fumigate us!”

Jesús recalls that “the day of the real roundup the officers arrived in food delivery cars and cars with no emblems on them. The helicopters were parked in a nearby hotel for a week. We saw them, but thought they were for fumigating. That wasn’t the case; they were going to fumigate us! They surrounded us and started asking: ‘Do you have a driver’s license? Are you an American citizen?’ In case anything happened, we already had our family plan: the ones let go would take care of the kids of those who were detained.”

Jesús added certain opinions about the migra and about the strategy that worked with him: “The Latinos in the migra are the worst. They were shouting at us and giving orders all the time. They were weighed down with pistols. The Americans are a real godsend. One Chinese guy was terrible with the people: ‘Move over here!’ The officers had a list of criminals they were looking for. They came for 100 and found 650 without documents. They achieved the biggest roundup in history. That’s why they were afraid of us. There were many more of us than they had expected. That’s why they treated us so badly. They tied up our feet and… we had to get up the best we could. What could we do? At the end of the day this is their country and they can do what they want with you. They took us to Jena [Louisiana, which has an immigrant detention center], where they gave us a medical check-up and let those with heart problems and families go.

“We went from one cubicle to another and they had us sign papers. The best thing is not to sign, because you don’t always know what you’re accepting there. The laws here in the United States are very straightforward, and if you don’t sign they can’t do anything. One officer told me they were going to detain me for three or four months, perhaps a year. Another told me that was a lie. It helped that the officer wrote that I had entered the country illegally. Since I had actually entered legally and could prove it, the judge told me he couldn’t proceed because they had filled my form out wrong. I saved myself because know something about how the system works here. All the bad things happen to us due to a lack of information.”

“They said they were the law”

With a ringing Argentinean accent, Celia explained to us the limits of the legality of these events: “At that moment I was four months’ pregnant. I didn’t react to what was happening. My tummy was hard and I was really frightened I’d lose the baby. I’d already lost one. I just watched and watched, to see what was happening, where they were taking us. I knew very well that I shouldn’t sign anything. I told them ‘I’m using my right not to say anything that might incriminate me.’ And they got annoyed. They said they were the law and that I couldn’t refuse to talk.

“That scared me and I started replying to their questions. There were a lot of questions about health. They took our fingerprints. Two heavily armed officers escorted me when I went to find my daughter. They didn’t treat me badly, but they did intimidate me. They took us outside where it was drizzling. You always think this might happen, but it’s really horrible when it does. There’s always the fear that they might come and take me. Now I’m waiting to see what the decision is and whether I have to go back to my country.”

Control by electronic monitoring bracelets

Candelaria, originally from Totonicapán in Guatemala, remembers the roundup as the most traumatic experience of her life: “What we went through was traumatic for us and our children. After the roundup my son couldn’t sleep for nights. He didn’t want to eat. I’d already heard there was going to be a roundup, but we wouldn’t be able to eat unless I went to work. That day we went in at 6 in the morning and at 11 the supervisor started shouting that the migra was there. ‘Now what’s been announced so much is coming down on us,’ I thought. ‘The migra’s got us now, and what will I do with my kids?’ I ran and saw a relative: ‘What’ll we do?’ I ran to the cafeteria and called home. I thought the migra wasn’t just in the factory but in the whole of Laurel. An officer arrived and interrogated me. I couldn’t see anyone I knew nearby. It can’t be true, good God, they’ve got me now. My sister-in-law wanted to give me the key to her room because she heard they were going to let me go because I had kids. And I refused to sign the papers. I knew that they couldn’t do anything without my signature and told them as much out loud.

“An officer ordered me to shut up and I told him, ‘You’re eating because of us. If it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t have this job you’ve got!’ They gave us water and a peanutbutter cookie but I threw it away. They asked my why I was throwing it away, ‘Because you’re giving it to us so you can say you gave us food. But that isn’t food for me. That’s crap, not food.’ They put an electronic bracelet on my ankle and I’ve had it ever since. I’ve had it for a year and a half. I cried when they put it on me, and when they asked why I said, ‘I’m crying because we’re not dogs. We’re not animals.’ It made my heart ache to see my workmates and brothers from the church getting on the bus with their feet and hands tied. They couldn’t even lift a hand to say goodbye. I told my children everything that happened and my daughter was traumatized. So was my son. Whenever a vehicle passed by the house, they wanted me to hide. My daughter didn’t eat for three days and I had to take her to the hospital, where they admitted her. This whole experience drew us closer to God. We now have God firmly by the hand. We’ve had the support of friends, neighbors and brothers from the church. Even people we don’t know have come up to help us.”

Branded by a new scarlet letter

Candelaria showed me her electronic monitoring bracelet and the apparatus for recharging its battery. She explained to me that she has to spend three hours a day charging it, that she isn’t allowed to work until her case has been resolved and that they can locate her at any moment.

There has been a growing wave of threatening controls in the United States for a couple of decades now. Between 1990 and 1996 alone, the number of workers under electronic surveillance rose from 8 million to 30 million a year. Employers eavesdropped on an estimated 400 million telephone conversations a year, around 750 per minute.

Undocumented immigrants are an enormous segment of people under surveillance. In its web page, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) boasts of having aggressively secured an Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program, with electronic and telephonic monitoring for aliens subject to removal processes but with no detention order. According to official ICE figures, over 15,300 aliens were included in the ATD program in 2008, which the ICE explains is only available in certain selected cities for the moment, but will soon be applied throughout the country.

The Latinos from Laurel had the dubious privilege of swelling the numbers involved in that program. The bracelet not only has the sociological impact of making one feel under constant observation, but also works as a “scarlet letter,” sending out a message that the wearer is under suspicion, questioned, frowned upon, on the verge of ostracism. The braceleted undocumented immigrants still live in Laurel. They have the laurel depicted on the US shield, but not the emblematic eagle.

Incarceration control

With the Laurel roundup, new minors were put in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and 475 adults were transferred to LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena. So the following day we went to Jena, where many of those detained were sent, but we couldn’t see or talk to them. They had very probably all been deported or braceleted by then, but we have no way of telling. We were only allowed to tour the installations and were given a talk.

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes that “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” The United States of America, a land bursting with utopias, has also been a place in which prisons have proliferated. That country has neither the largest population nor the highest crime rates—whether associated with migration or not—but it does have the world’s largest migratory detention infrastructure.

In 2007, there were 961 immigrant detention sites in the United States. According to official ICE figures, the total population detained rose from 231,804 in 2004 to 311,213 in 2007. In other words, the processing capacity of these centers increased 34% in just three years. And its successes just keep growing. The Global Detention Project states that by 2009 these centers had the capacity to hold 33,400 detainees at any given time, which is a great advance compared to a capacity of 27,500 in 2006, 18,500 in 2003 and 6,785 in 1994. In a country that proclaims itself to be the land of the free and the utopia par excellence of modernity, the land of the American dream is also the biggest immigrant jailhouse.

The ICE has 286 facilities of its own, concentrated in southern and US-Mexico border states, with 68% of the total in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. As Tom Greene put it, “Look for the poorest settlement in the most destitute county of the least prosperous states and there you’ll find an immigrant detention center. They set them up there to generate employment.”

The LaSalle detention facility

Located in a forgotten corner of Jena county in Louisiana, the LaSalle Detention Facility can hold 1,160 detainees. We don’t know how many there were on the day of our visit; all they told us was that most are Latin Americans. The tour included the laundry, the kitchen, a dormitory, the hearing rooms and the library. In the laundry, we saw piles of uniforms of different sizes in three colors: blue, orange and red. The colors signal the level of danger their wearers are classified as representing. They can change their uniform, but obviously not the color, three times a week. In winter the overcoats are washed once a month.

In the kitchen we could see some of the detainees from afar, as they are allowed to work there if they pass a medical examination and are willing to accept the $3 daily wage. The menu changes every six weeks and is overseen by a nutritionist. Many detainees don’t like the food. They complain that there’s too much rice, according to those in charge, who stress the detainees’ capricious nature with the comment, “There are as many opinions as heads.”

The inmates have the right to an hour and a half of recreation every day, depending on the weather. For more entertainment, each cell has a domino set and a pack of cards. Family visits are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays. The restrictions set for the visits, which those accompanying us conveniently failed to mention, include no physical contact during the social and family visits, strict observance of a dress code, a ban on chewing gum on the premises and a maximum quota of two simultaneous visitors and one hour per visit.

The only person in the library was an Afro-non-American in an orange uniform. We examined the 43 shelves and found that only one had books in Spanish. That shelf had room for about 80 books, but contained only 54, which is a meager inventory for a prison with a capacity of over a thousand detainees, most of them Latin American. It’s ironic that they’re providing a mainly English-language library for immigrants who supposedly have to leave the country because they aren’t American enough or recyclable into Americans. As most of the books in Spanish were of poor literary quality, it’s possible that stereotypical images of Latinos are operating behind this depressing provision of reading materials: uncultured, not very learned, preferring junk literature…

“They don’t know their rights”

Guards control each door in a building rife with cameras—even in the dormitories—and crowned by hundreds of coils of barbed wire. They receive just five months of training in the areas the ICE considers vital for the tasks they have to perform: use of firearms, immigration policies, application of handcuffs and Spanish. But it appears they don’t get any training on upholding basic care norms for the incarcerated immigrants or on the proceedings their processes require.

One of the people accompanying our group explained the most common problems for the detainees: “Some don’t even know the name of the prison they’re incarcerated in after a week of being here. They complain a lot about not receiving the medical treatment they got before. Many don’t have public defenders. Nobody explains to them that the deportation process has to be humane and dignified. In ordinary jails the prisoners can make demands if the health and food aren’t up to the established standards, but in the immigrant centers demands are only suggestions. The complaint system doesn’t stop the guards from throwing away the forms and complaints and taking revenge on those who filled them out. The system doesn’t protect people who complain. And on top of it all, many don’t even know they have the right to complain.

“Between 2003 and 2009, there were over 100 deaths in the immigrant detention centers. Many weren’t declared in the forensic office and the families weren’t even informed. Many got ill and depressed during the time their processes lasted. Each process should take a maximum of six months, but in reality the decision is in the ICE’s hands. There are cases of people who spend several years in a detention center.”

Illegal or criminal?

That last statement is backed up by statistics. The Global Detention Project charged that of the 32,000 immigrant detainees there in March 2009, 18,690 of them—almost 60%—had no criminal conviction, even for illegal entry or having crossed the border without documents. Detention is theoretically only obligatory for people with a criminal record, yet over 400 of the inmates with no criminal record had been imprisoned at least a year, and a dozen for three years or more, including a Chinese immigrant who had been locked up for over five years.

Almost 10,000 had been inside for over a month, which is the average detention stay ICE uses to illustrate its effective detention management. The average detention time leaped from 2.7 to 26.3 days between 1978 and 1992, an 874% increase. By 2009, this figure had reached 114 days, if we add all the days spent in detention before and after deportation.

When migrating is a crime

In September 2009, Donald Kerwin and Lin Yi-Ying released a devastating report on detentions titled “Immigration Detention: Can ICE Meets Its Legal Imperatives and Case Management Responsibilities?” Some of the findings are similar to those of the Global Detention Project, while others are even more chilling. According to their estimates, based on ICE data, 18,690 of the 32,000 detainees in the ICE centers on January 25, 2009, were immigrants with cases pending. They had been confined for an average of 81 days, with 74% having been incarcerated for less than 90 days, 13% for between 90 days and 6 months, and 3% for a year or more. The 10,873 detainees who had received final removal orders remained confined for an average of 72 days following the deportation order.

A total of 58% of those detained had no criminal record, and among those who did, the most serious offenses were smuggling and trafficking of immigrants, known in Spanish as coyotaje (13%), and migratory offenses (6%). In an era of hunting down terrorists, migration is a crime, as Hannah Arendt encapsulated in a scathing paragraph of inconsolable and lamentable topicality 60 years ago based on her own experience as an immigrant: “…we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while; since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any blood-shed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction.” Earlier in the same work she stated that “Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.”

The end of the road: Deportees

Despite their sluggishness and delays in processing cases, the detention centers are a very important link in the deportation industry. The Global Detention Project notes that 367,000 people were deported from these centers in 2008. The LaSalle Detention Facility deports by air, land and sea, taking advantage of the main US sea port. The ICE’s annual report for 2008 boasts that its flight operations, based in Kansas City, deported a record 200,000 aliens in 2008, an increase of more than 20% over 2007. This sustained increase has markedly affected Central Americans, with the annual volume of deported Central Americans shooting up from 12,414 to almost 80,000 between 1999 and 2008.

This increase has worsened the residencies-to-deportations and citizens-to-deportations ratios. In 2000-2001, four to five Central Americans obtained residency for every one deported. In 2007, this ratio reversed and in 2008 the score shifted to the Department of Homeland Security with 1.6 Central Americans deported for each new one who became a US resident. The deportations/new naturalizations ratio suffered a similar but more severe reversal, with almost 2 deportations for each Central American granted citizenship in 2007.

In the case of Nicaraguans, there has been a spectacular fall in the balance of these indicators in 2000-2008, from 35 new permanent residencies for each Nicaraguan deported to 1.5. Hondurans, meanwhile, are suffering increasingly alarming levels of persecution and inclemency. Starting from an almost level situation in 2000 with 1.2 residencies granted for each deportation, Honduras saw the terms of this relationship reversed and in 2008 they suffered the crushing defeat of 4.5 deportees for each new resident blessed by the miserly compassion of the Department of Homeland Security.

In general, the DHS, which has existed since 2002, has been less generous than its predecessors. Between 1990 and 1999, 610,189 Central Americans obtained permanent residency. In 2000-2008, this figure dropped to 544,117 and it’s obvious that when the figures are produced for 2009, they won’t show an increase. The most dramatic drops have affected Salvadorans and Nicaraguans. Even assuming that the number of residencies granted in 2009 was similar to 2008, there were 22,185 fewer residencies for Salvadorans and 10,974 fewer for Nicaraguans in the last ten years than in 1990-1999.

Casting just a superficial look at a very simple typology of the deportees reveals ominous signs. The well-oiled deportation machinery is respecting less and less the imperatives of a clean criminal record to justify the swipe of its scythe. The relationship between people deported for criminal activity and those deported for the hideous crime of not bearing documents was reversed in the case of Nicaraguans from 1.4 criminals for each undocumented immigrant to 3.5 undocumented immigrants for each criminal. Guatemala and Honduras, which registered more deportees due to lack of documentation than to committing crimes for over a decade, have seen the ratio of undocumented immigrants to presumed criminals rise from 2.4 and 1.4 to 5.8 and 4.8, respectively. The ideologues of the obsessive nationalist panoptic require less imagination and ideological resources to lend credence to their cause. It has been established as common sense that the hunt for undocumented immigrants is reason enough to separate families, incarcerate, monitor and expel.

We still haven’t come to the end of our 12-day tour of some of the stations along the road to rejection. There is still one fundamental link: the border, which is the stage and crossing point for different dynamics that we’ll examine next month. At this point along the road, the group was moved by the testimonies of the braceleted immigrants of Laurel, perplexed by the coldness of the justice system and left indignant by the prison in Jena and the whole immigrant detention system. Will we continue telling about what we saw and heard? Yes, your Honor.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher with the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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