Pains and Profits of Immigration Imprisonment

AVID in collaboration with professor Neil Harvey (NMSU) and students Emily Durkin (NMSU), Daniela Navarro Verdugo (Cal Poly Pomona), Brennan Ramsey (NMSU), Fernanda Reyes (U. Kansas), and Avigail Turima Romo (Columbia) released a report on the condition of migrants detained at the Otero County Processing Center. The report, supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site Program on Immigration Policy and Border Communities (Award #1659515) is entitled “The Pains and Profits of Immigrant Imprisonment: Migrant Testimonies from ICE Detention Centers in the El Paso ICE Field Office.” The document is being circulated with legislators in New Mexico and west Texas. Release of the report was covered in the Las Cruces Sun News.

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Executive Summary

This report examines the experiences and concerns of 33 migrants incarcerated by ICE during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic: March 13-June 19, 2020. All individuals were imprisoned at detention facilities under the jurisdiction of the El Paso ICE Field Office: Otero County Processing Center (n=24), Torrance County Detention Facility (n=6), and the El Paso Service Processing Center (n=3).

Information about detained migrant experiences was obtained through telephone calls made to an Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) volunteer who took notes on those conversations. Detained migrants reached out to express concerns and seek support regarding their situation.

Under the direction of a faculty adviser and in collaboration with AVID coordinators, a team of five student researchers transcribed and coded the volunteer’s handwritten notes. Results of this process identified 196 complaints that fell into five key themes of concern:

  1. Daily micro-aggressions and humiliating treatment (24 complaints by 8 individuals). ICE officials and private contractor staff would shout insults and behave in coercive ways which created a generally hostile environment.
  1. Denial of reasonable and equitable access to telephone services and legal representation (20 complaints by 11 individuals). Telephones were not in working order, access to tablet computers was highly restricted, ICE was not providing the promised number of free telephone minutes, and there was a lack of privacy during calls.
  1. Poor quality food, hunger and sickness (25 complaints by 12 individuals). Food was of poor quality, individuals suffered food related illness, portions were limited and people felt hungry; there was inconsistent access to food and hostile eating environments.
  1. Cruel and inhumane sanitary conditions (34 complaints by 10 individuals). Basic hygiene items were lacking, there was insufficient access to showers, bed sheets and clothes went unchanged, personal grooming supplies were denied, there was disregard for clean spaces, and there was a lack of personal protective face coverings.
  1. Insufficient protections from COVID-19 (93 complaints by 17 individuals). There was inadequate testing and inappropriate quarantine, individuals experienced medical negligence and there was a widespread inability to engage in social distancing.

Each of the five areas of concern expressed by migrants were evaluated in light of ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) and their Pandemic Response Requirements. According to these guiding documents, none of the five frequently expressed areas of concern should have existed because each represents a clear violation of ICE detention
policy and procedure. We conclude that ICE detention standards are ineffective, that the use of private detention contractors incentivizes cost cutting, and that these cost cutting efforts endanger detained persons. Prior attempts to reform ICE detention and improve conditions have failed. The poor conditions and abuses detailed here are chronic, and are made more acute by the pandemic. There is no way to make immigration detention humane, and thus the detention system should be abolished.

Recommended Citation

Brown Vega, Margaret, Nathan Craig, Emily Durkin, Neil Harvey, Daniela Navarro Verdugo, Brennan Ramsey, Fernanda Reyes, and Avigail Turima Romo. 2020. “The Pains and Profits of Immigrant Imprisonment: Migrant Testimonies from ICE Detention Centers in the El Paso ICE Field Office.” Las Cruces, NM: Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) and New Mexico State University (NMSU).

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