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Documentary Pries Open the Door to Immigrant Detention Centers

Tuesday, 18 October 2011 13:07 By Seth Freed Wessler, Colorlines.com | Interview
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In Maria Hinojosa’s documentary, “Lost in Detention,” which will air tonight on PBS’ “Frontline,” a father of three sits down with the journalist who asks him how he has handled his wife’s deportation. She was removed from the U.S. after she was pulled over for a traffic violation.

“I haven’t handled it,” he said. “It handled me.”

In many ways the immigration enforcement system is so overwhelming and so rogue that it handles all it touches. Making sense of what’s happening, and of the damage the system inflicts, is no easy task.

Hinojosa’s film uncovers some of the most troubling sides of that system, from local police involvement in deportation to abuses in detention centers. The film is perhaps the first time a full narrative about the failures of Obama’s immigration policy has been articulated to a mainstream public audience.

“I would just hope that maybe this documentary helps people engage with their neighbors and their friends,” Hinojosa told me. “Maybe we can just have this conversation.”

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The last time I talked to Hinojosa, we had both recently returned from reporting inside immigration detention centers. And at the time, we were both still reeling from the experience. When we spoke again yesterday, I asked her about the detention centers.

In your film, you spend a lot of time on Willacy Detention Center, which you entered and filmed. When I went there, I most remember scenes of detainees marched up and down the hallways in silence, except for the sounds of guards yelling and metal doors slamming. I remember walking by a small holding cell where recently detained people were jailed after being loaded off the buses and paddy wagons. One woman was called out and a guard pointed her over to sit down at a table to conduct intake, handing her a face mask to wear before she spoke to the detention center worker. The women looked like they were coming into a prison camp, which is exactly where they were. The place was unreal. It’s not.

When I think back about what I saw in these detention centers, to be honest with you, everything that I saw was shocking. I heard stories of people who were detained who said things to me like, “I was fed food with maggots;” “I was fed raw chicken;” “I was fed spoiled food;” “I had no one to talk to and so, you know, we gave rats names;” “We could not see the sunlight;” “I was held for 10 days and nobody once told me why I was held, I never got a phone call out, I never got to see a judge, I never got to see a lawyer.” All of these things are shocking because they are happening in our country, on our watch.

Here in this office today, there was someone who I was talking to who looks like you—a woman with fair skin—but she has a green card, she’s from France. I just told her, “You have to become a citizen, you have to become a citizen now, you are not safe.”

People don’t realize that, you know, people think, oh Maria you’re being a little bit extreme. But the truth is that there are people who are being held in these places who have been living in our country with legal permits, with green cards and now they are being rounded up and detained and deported.

Willacy is a notorious place and you’ve done a lot of work in “Lost In Detention” to substantiate why: rampant sexual abuse, physical violence and blatant racism by guards. I know that you also visited two other detention enters while reporting. Is it your sense that immigration detention in the United States suffers from these kinds of abuses generally?

The problem with the immigration detention reality is that nobody at a very senior level has really spent any time understanding the fact that we now have the largest civil detention system in the world. So from the beginning, you have a huge population that’s being held, but there is no real government policy that is applied to civil detention. If you’re housed in a prison, you fall under the legal structure of the Bureau of Prison. If there’s abuse in that prison, there’s a legal path for you to make a complaint. If you are an immigrant and you are detained in an immigrant detention facility, you do not have the same rights to challenge the conditions under which you are being held.

So, what does that mean for our country? That you have thousands of people that are being held, but it’s unclear whether or not they have any legal recourse if anything happens to them while they’re being detained?

As a journalist, I’m concerned about this. As an American, I’m concerned about this. Because we believe that there’s some kind of legal recourse that we all have, because we have basic rights in our country. Now all of a sudden, you’re encountering a population that’s being told, “Actually you don’t have any legal recourse.” If abuses happen, well, if the abused is an immigrant then they just deport that person and the abuse case goes away.

Your documentary focuses in significant part on Secure Communities. You tell stories about that program, which checks the immigration status of anyone booked into a local jail, tearing families apart when a mother is stopped for a traffic violation. You interviewed Cecilia Munoz, the Obama administration’s top person on immigration. She told you that as long as long as Congress funds ICE to deport 400,000 people a year, the administration will continue to uphold the law of the land and these kinds of “collateral” consequences are inevitable. Resistance against Secure Communities is huge. I wonder how long you think the administration can keep this up?

I think that right now this is a system that the wheels are turning and it’s going to be very difficult to stop. You know, one of our whistle blowers, a former ICE employee, basically said, this is a machine that is starting and it’s being funded by Congress and so you’re not going to go back to Congress if you’re ICE and say, “Oh we couldn’t reach the 400,000 number that you funded us to meet.” No, if you’re ICE, you’re going to find 400,000 to deport.

You hear something like this coming from Cecilia Munoz, who was given a MacArthur Genius Award for her work on immigration and being an immigrant advocate… I’m sure this is very difficult for her; she didn’t say that it was in her interview. What she did say is that there will be 400,000 deportations a year.

The Obama administration, when it was running for office, was saying, we hear your pain to Latinos and to other immigrant constituencies. Now it is essentially saying, we feel your pain but we’re going to cause it, too.

You’ve said this is getting worse. What do you mean?

Well, we didn’t have hundreds of detention centers housing immigrant detainees. We didn’t have that. If you were here and you were a refugee and you were applying for political asylum, you were not going to be housed in a detention center while that was happening…. I think that it’s not just individual stories of families being separated, it’s the fact that this is happening every hour in our country, somewhere a process is being made to figure out which immigrant where is going to be detained.

As a woman in particular, this was a difficult story to report, because I met two women personally who were sexually assaulted while they were detained. One of them ends up in our documentary, basically telling us that she had been told that if she talked about the fact that she had been sexually assaulted by a male guard, that it would go worse for her. That she could be killed; that she could be deported. This to me is so distressing….

I think of one story that resonated that did not end up in the documentary. One of the young women we met, she was raised in Austin, she speaks perfect English, your typical American girl—except she wasn’t, she didn’t have a working green card. She was telling this story about what they would do at Willacy when they would find a bed bug or a flea or lice. She said that they would take all of the women, they would undress them, they would strip them, they would have them strip all the beds, all the sheets, put this all into one big pile, that they’d go wash or destroy it. And then all the women had to stand in line for the showers, which are open, no privacy. And she said, “So there we were all standing in a line naked to go to the showers, and you know there’s this movie I remember seeing as a younger person, and I felt like I was in it. The movie was called ‘Schindler’s list.’ ”

To me, that just sent shudders through my spine. Maybe she did not quite understand what the comparison was that she was making, I don’t know. To me, just hearing her say this was so shocking that I almost did not have a follow-up question. This is important for all of us living in the country to know and see. We have to see it in order for it to change.

Reprinted with permission of Colorlines.com. Sign up to receive Colorlines Direct, a weekly email digest of key stories on Colorlines.com. You'll get award-winning news from our multi-racial team of writers covering hot topics and a broad range of issues from a racial justice perspective.


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