Many mistakenly equate immigration detention centers to federal prison. Recent news that twenty-four immigrants have died in ICE custody during the Trump administration, coupled with the news that there are still detained children who have not been reunited with their families, have caused the media to question again the conditions of the detentions centers and ICE’s capability to run them. The reality is that an ICE detainee’s experience in a detention center varies greatly depending on their sex and geographical location. What is certain, however, is that the experience is much worse than you can imagine.
I was assigned “Kay’s” (a pseudonym I will be using to preserve client confidentiality) file on September 20, 2018. Like any other day at work, I walked into my office, sorted through my new case assignments and picked up Kay’s file. I read through the consulting attorney’s notes, leafed through the documents provided by the client’s family members, and once I had a good idea of the legal strategy and plan of action, I picked up the phone and dialed the number on file.
“Good afternoon,” I said. “My name is Alexis Ruiz and I will be representing Client Kay in her immigration matters. May I ask what your relationship is to the client?”
“I am her mother,” said the nervous voice on the other line in Spanish. “My daughter is currently in detention. Please help us.”
And so began the story of my representation of Kay, a 23-year-old woman from El Salvador. In July of 2018, Kay was arrested in Wake County, North Carolina. She was subsequently detained for two months while the District Attorney and her criminal attorney worked out a plea bargain. Once the deal was struck, Kay’s charges were dismissed, and Kay was en route to freedom.
Or so she thought.
You see, Kay was brought into the United States as a 7-year-old back in 2002. Because she entered the United States without inspection, Kay was immediately placed in immigration proceedings, and ordered removed in absentia by an immigration judge in San Antonio, Texas. As a result of Kay’s old removal order, Wake County was unwilling to let her out of jail without first alerting ICE.
Kay was given no information about the location she was being taken to. She asked the Wake County facility if she could make a phone call to her parents, but once ICE had placed an immigration hold on Kay, Wake County immediately took her information out of their commissary system, and Kay was unable to contact anyone to let them know what was going on. Kay was escorted into a van with 5 other people who has immigration holds. She was the only woman in the group. As Kay was being transported, she remembers looking out of a van window and seeing a sign for Morrisville, North Carolina. Once at Morrisville, Kay filled out paperwork, and then she was separated from the men and driven to Charlotte. Once in Charlotte, Kay overheard one of the Officers say that they had violated a privacy issue. Kay was supposed to have a woman drive her the three hours from Morrisville to Charlotte. Instead she was transported alone in a van with only male drivers.
Eventually, Kay was transported from Charlotte to her assigned detention center, but the disorganization and mishaps continued. Kay’s assigned detention center was already full, so she was dropped off at the Robert A. Deyton Detention Facility temporarily. Deyton, a privately-operated prison located in Lovejoy Georgia, was not prepared to house ICE detainees, so they housed them together with federal prisoners. Deyton was not prepared to set up commissary accounts for the new arrivals, therefore Kay was unable to speak with members of her family for many days. The federal prisoners were not accustomed to sharing the detention center with ICE detainees, often referring to Kay and the others as “ICE people” and assuming the ICE detainees did not speak English. The federal prisoners were often discriminatory and racist towards them.
Kay spent two weeks at Deyton. The last week she was there she was finally able to contact her family, who had still not known where she was up until then. Friday of that same week she was woken up at 4 AM and told to gather her things and be ready to leave.
On September 21st, sixteen days after her criminal charges were dismissed, Kay was transferred to her final destination- Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. Kay arrived at 1 PM to the processing area where she was told to give up all her property that she had on her person. From there she was given a uniform to change into and was given sandwiches for lunch. She remained in a cell in the processing center somewhere around five to six hours with three other detained women, one from Mexico, one from Honduras, and once from Germany.
At 7 PM, all four women were finally escorted to their dormitory area. Kay instantly felt scared as there were people everywhere, around 90 people. The beds were pushed all together, laundry was hung everywhere, the paint on the walls was falling off. Kay observed her new surroundings and quickly determined that Irwin County Detention Center was a place where people stayed for a very long time. Kay was given no instructions by Irwin officials in terms of where she was to sleep and what she was to do. The Irwin official just shut her into the area and left. The other detainees had to guide her instead, telling her where her bed was, how to use the phone, and how to use the communal shower that offered no privacy.
The first couple of days, she spent learning the ropes from the other detainees. Soon she started to learn about the other detainees’ lives and their immigration cases. From them, Kay learned that if she was going to try to fight her case, she would have to remain in Irwin for many months.
Kay heard heartbreaking stories. Irwin was full of people who had just entered the country and others, like her, who had lived in the U.S. almost their whole lives. There were many there who felt defeated, who told her to ask to be deported instead of trying to fight. Many detainees didn’t know that they have a right to an attorney. There were many older people in the detention center, in their 60s and 70s. Kay says there were people you would never imagine would be there.
Kay met Martha, who had been fighting her asylum case for three years, all the while in immigration detention. Each time she appealed her case, it took longer for her to receive an answer. Martha’s husband had been granted asylum based on the same facts. Eventually, Martha lost her case and she was deported.
Kay also learned that people from Africa wait twice as long to receive decisions on their cases. It also takes longer for them to be deported. Kay met Fatima, who signed her deportation to Cameroon and still had to wait a year in Irwin before she could finally leave. Even after she left, Fatima did not get to Cameroon. She was transferred to different detention centers until she ended up back in Irwin.
Kay met a woman from Croatia named “Lang” who spoke broken English. Lang was suddenly taken away with other women to an airport in order to be deported to Mexico. Lang said that she was about to board the plane when officials realized they had the wrong person. Lang was immediately sent back to Irwin.
The officers at Irwin did not treat the detainees like people. Detention officers would often yell at detainees and would become angry if they failed to follow their commands. Many times, orders weren’t obeyed because of the language barriers between the detainees and the officials. Kay noticed that there was really no order or rules that the officials followed. They sort of just did whatever they wanted.
Eventually, Kay’s morale began to wane. She struggled because there was nothing to do in the detention center. There were no board games, books, or anything to keep you from going insane. There were many detainees who were not mentally stable, many who have been in Irwin for a long time. Kay thinks that detainees lose their minds from the shock of the situation and the constant monotony. A woman named Julia, who had been in Irwin for six months, was deeply disturbed and had been a victim of domestic abuse. Kay and other detainees warned the Irwin officers about Julia, but the officers did nothing. The detained individuals who were suffering mentally received little to no attention. The officers might send mentally ill detainees to medical, but medical does not offer any psychiatric help. Sometimes the mentally unstable were stripped down and placed in solitary confinement.
Kay appealed her case with the Board of Immigration Appeals after her motion to reopen was denied by the San Antonio Immigration Court. There had only been one person during her whole time at Irwin who had their appeal granted. Everyone else who tried had gotten rejected. Kay had been in Irwin for 9 months in total when she received a call from her mother informing her that her appeal had been sustained. Kay was shocked. On June 3rd, 2019, Irwin officials woke Kay up at 8 am to tell her that her bond hearing was that day. She was brought into a courtroom with a police escort. Kay was so nervous and her whole body shook while she waited her turn to be called. She was so shocked to even be in a bond hearing after being detained for so long.
The bond hearings began, and the immigration judge listened to many attorneys as they zealously argued for their client’s freedom. The judge methodically granted and denied bonds. The woman before Kay was granted a 25k bond. Kay only became more nervous . Finally, Kay’s alien registration number was called and her attorney walked up to the stand. Kay was shaking, sweating, incredulous, and nervous as she listened to the back and forth between attorney and judge. Then came a moment of silence before the judge announced her decision.
“I’m granting you a $15,000.00 bond,” the immigration judge said.
Kay failed to process anything said after that. She only remembers returning to her dormitory and after telling all of the detainees the good news, she remembers hearing a tremendous roar of cheering and laughter.
Kay could not believe that the entire process was about to be over. In the end it was a little bittersweet for Kay to leave the people she had gotten to know over the last nine months.
Despite being granted a bond, it took Immigration and Customs Enforcement approximately 48 hours to process Kay for release. The wait was endless. Many detainees came to check up on her, to ask who her judge was, and to congratulate her for getting a bond. It had been a while since someone had been granted a bond in Irwin and not many people get to leave.
On June 4th, 2019, Kay was finally free.
When her family arrived to get her, they ran towards each other and embraced. They were all so happy to be reunited. Kay says that it was weird for her to be free, to be able to see the sun, to feel the air. She had missed everything so much.
I caught up with Kay two days after she was released from Irwin. She sees everything differently now. She is extra grateful for what she has. Every time she does anything, she thinks twice, because she feels that if she missteps, she will be taken straight back to Irwin. Kay says it is weird to have her phone back, to have privacy while showering, and that is very strange to experience moments of silence. Her sleep schedule is completely off, and she feels disoriented when she’s awake during the day. Kay says that she wants to help those that are still in Irwin and detention centers like Irwin, adding that she might want to go back to school and try to become a paralegal.
Georgia ranks among Texas, California, Arizona, and Louisiana as the top five states with the largest number of people in U.S. immigration detention per day. In the fiscal year of 2018, that number for Georgia was around 3,717 detainees a day.
“I thank god for everything,” says Kay. “When I first got there, they were trying to deport me. I can’t believe I got out. I never thought I would get out.”
Written by Alexis Ruiz with contributions by Maria Diaz-Jimenez