This blog reports on a visit to the ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California, organized by the Center for the Study of International Migration at UCLA.
We headed out from UCLA around 9:30 am on Thursday, November 14. Five of us packed in to the car: two Sociology professors (Roger Waldinger and César Ayala), two graduate students and I. Another student was to meet us near the Detention Center. The freeway was remarkably open, and we sailed across the City of Angels and out into the southeastern desert. In the car we discussed what we each anticipated the visit would involve, and realized that most of us had rather little idea of what to expect.
Ninety minutes later we encountered a sign telling us we had arrived at Adelanto: “The city of unlimited possibilities.” The irony was not lost on us.
We met at a coffee shop with our contact to the facilities, a visitor-volunteer who spends countless hours as well as her own money to support migrants. She keeps records about who is housed in the facilities, the status of their asylum cases, and other basic information. She helps them advocate for their rights and secure things they need, including visitors, basic supplies, and access to lawyers, as well as information, help and basic goods if and when they are released. We were provided with a list of asylum seekers who don’t have families and friends in the area and who have not had visitors in a long time.
The facilities were tucked in a far corner of this desert town, itself already well isolated from the larger metropolitan area of Los Angeles. A sign bears the GEO label; this “Modified Community Correctional Facility” is actually a complex of facilities, including a prison and two migration detention center buildings, all run by the GEO group, a for-profit management company that claims it is “committed to providing leading, evidence-based rehabilitation programs to individuals while in-custody and post-release into the community.”
Isolation and separation are a large part of how the detention system works, like the prison system. People in detention are removed from the larger society – kept out of sight and thus out of mind. They are further separated and isolated within the centers, with visits possible only under carefully controlled situations. I spoke with a migrant from Ghana who told me there were three other Ghaneans in the facility, but they were (seemingly deliberately) housed in separate units, and had been discouraged from talking to each other. Men and women are also separated, not surprisingly, with different visiting days for each. I don’t know where transgender people – a growing group of refugee seekers escaping persecution in their home countries – would be housed. Thursdays were designated for men.
We walked into the reception area. A framed poster behind the front desk read, “General Library” and sported an image of neatly organized books. To the right of the desk was a notice for “Attorney Appointments” with a phone number. There were two bank-teller-like machines across from the desk with a potted fern in between. These machines boasted “Send money the fast, easy, reliable way.” Other signs on the walls included one that declared, “Keep Detention Safe” and proclaimed “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and assault. The waiting area off to the side was lined with blue plastic chairs, and sported another series of framed posters: pristine images from around the facilities, all eerily devoid of people.
A guard in a powdered blue button-down shirt and uniform grey pants welcomed us, though “welcome” is surely not the right word. Most of the receptionists and guards that we interacted with that day avoided eye contact and stuck with the regulations: recording our names and the numbers of the migrants we wanted to visit, collecting our government-issued IDs, handing us keys to lock up our valuables – or not just our valuables, but rather everything we had with us, down to the chapstick I found in my pocket. We were given badges with our visitation numbers. The guards showed little curiosity about why our merry band was there.
One of our members had forgotten to bring his license. Not surprisingly, he was told that he would not be allowed to enter the facilities. This was an awakening to the privilege that many of us operate with: to move about the world without carrying official documentation of our legal status, not expecting to encounter checkpoints where our entry would be barred.
After waiting for some time in the waiting area, we were told we could proceed through the security detector. We were escorted by armed guards through a series of heavily bolted doors, past a window into the guards’ area where we saw a large board filled with handcuffs of different sizes, and into a holding area, where a “Continuum of Care” poster was prominently displayed.
We were then allowed into the visiting area: a room set with small tables and chairs, not unlike the one in the waiting room poster. Five or six men were there, waiting, spaced around the room. We were told where to sit – across from the migrant we had signed up to visit, not next to him. (This arrangement made it hard to hear – a fact that was aggravated by the ambient noise in the room.)
There were strict regulations about how people many could be in the room at the same time, and who could be mixed with whom. No recording instruments were allowed past the waiting area: no phones, notebooks, pencils or pens. At the end of the visits, we were allowed to write down the names and bunk/dorm numbers of the migrants, and to offer them our contact information – but only under the strict vigilance of the guards, who gave us stubby pencils and small scraps of paper. One of my colleagues reached over the desk to borrow a pen to jot something down, and was promptly scolded by the guard: “You should ask to borrow my pen.”
The migrants were all dressed in clean blue prison-like garb, except one older man who was in orange, visiting with a middle-aged woman, three younger women of varying ages, and a baby. We learned from that this man had lived in Los Angeles for 25 years; he had been detained by ICE after a traffic stop, and was now awaiting his deportation hearing.
Later, we asked our guide about the different color uniforms. She explained that those migrants who are deemed “low risk” or “docile” wear blue; red is for those who are considered “belligerent;” orange is for those deemed “in between docile and belligerent.” There is a careful system of monitoring who gets to be in the room at the same time: red and blue are never to mix. Some migrants are also “quarantined” when they are ill.
I met with a migrant whom I’ll call Ronald. Ronald was from Ghana. He had been in detention since December. He had left Ghana in June last year, traveling to Ecuador, then by boat to Colombia, and up through the Panamanian jungle. He said it was “very difficult” and he talked repeatedly about pain –both physical and psychological. I did not get a clear story about Ronald’s asylum case, though he mentioned that someone had wanted him killed. When I asked him what he wanted me to say to the world on his behalf, he said, “I am not a criminal. Not here, not there, and I never will be.” He made clear that he felt he was being treated as one. (We might wonder, just what are refugee seekers to be “rehabilitated” from, in GEO’s Continuum of Care?)
Ronald told me that he works in the cafeteria for 7-8 hours a day. For this, he is paid $1/day. He needs the money to buy items at the prison’s commissary (at heavily marked up prices) or to make phone calls – the phone calls that are promised in a waiting room poster. These phone calls cost $1 per MINUTE.
In the afternoon, I met with another migrant at the other unit of the detention center – this after our group waited for more than an hour. Eduardo (a pseudonym) was from Honduras. His story was that he had been recruited by his uncle, who was a drug lord, into a gang. “I am not a killer,” he told me, and he felt he had to leave Honduras or be killed for his resistance. His asylum case had been denied, but was under appeal. He was afraid for his life, should he be deported back to Honduras. And he had lost contact with his wife and children.
Eduardo teared up as he, like Ronald, told me of his suffering. His immediate concern was physical pain. He had been hospitalized a few days earlier and had returned to find that his things had been stolen (documents and a few items he had purchased in the commissary, his pain medication, and the Claritin that he needed for allergies.) But it was the indignity that he had experienced that seemed most distressing: going in handcuffs to the hospital, then returning, still in great pain, and being told he had to stand in line like everyone else for his dinner. When he couldn’t stand, the guard let him sit down – but then told him he couldn’t eat.
When we parted, Eduardo asked me to call his mother to tell him he was ok. He asked me not to tell her about the pain he was in. But the guard insisted that he write down the number for me. This meant that Eduardo had to translate the phone number into English for the guard. Perhaps it was a problem that arose in the translation or transcription, but when I called that number, and spoke in Spanish asking for Eduardo, I was met with the voice of an angry woman who told me, “Speak in English or get out of this country.”
These are just two of many migrants’ stories. Some eventually pass through the system and are released on bail to await their asylum hearings – like Donaldo, a 21-year-old Cuban who met with César. Donaldo was released a few days later. With help from César and the foundation that supports migrants, he managed to post his $7500 bail, rent the required GPS surveillance device that will be used to track him, buy new clothes (because the clothes migrants bring into detention often do not serve them upon release), purchase a ticket to Tampa, stay over night in Los Angeles, and fly out to stay with relatives. Note: Without the help of foundations that post bail, migrants are left to borrow the money from bondspeople, who charge $1000 plus 20% of the bond. [One of the best ways you can help refugees is to contribute to organizations who post bonds. See below for a links.]
A few migrants may eventually be granted official refugee status. A few may give up on detention and opt to return to their home countries on their own. Others will be deported, to uncertain fates.
When we walked out the door at the end of the day I felt a tremendous surge of gratitude for freedoms I take for granted every day: to walk where I want to walk, in the open air, sunshine, or night sky. To eat what and when I choose. To purchase basic supplies, treat my own allergies, and go to the doctor without handcuffs around my wrists. Never mind to live without fear for my life.
Certainly, refugees suffer in many places around the world, not just the Unite States. Thousands are crowded into tents in northern Africa and put onto islands off the coast of Australia. There have been refugees throughout history who have been denied entry to this and other countries, even when we knew they were at risk for being rounded up and sent to their deaths.
But this clinical, neat, clean, prison-like approach seems uniquely American, and driven by a profit motive. Note that GEO’s stock portfolio shows a huge spike in November, 2016, right after Donald Trump was elected.
To me, the overall look and feel of Adelanto’s detention center was eerily reminiscent of the concentration camp I visited outside Munich this summer. Dachau was begun as a work camp, not an extermination camp; but that work was done in service to the nation, by people that the nation did not value as their own. I wonder what other Germans knew about what went on in these camps.
The American detention center system is not an extermination camp, though when we deny asylum we may well be sending people to their deaths. It is not a work camp, though at $1/day migrants’ labor surely contributes to the profits GEO reaps. But the parallels still bear consideration. Surely we can learn from history about the importance of knowing what is being done behind barbed wires, by people our nation deems less than fully human, in our name?
What we can do in the face of this system? I went to Adelanto in order to see with my own eyes the things that my government wants to keep out of view. I wanted to listen to people, hear their stories, and give them a chance to be heard. I wanted to respond to Ronald’s plea: “I need someone to talk with to receive my pain and sadness.” And I wanted to bring migrants’ stories to a larger public, so that no one can say, “But we didn’t know.”
The Center for the Study of International Migration at UCLA will continue to organize monthly visits. If you’d like to join us, please contact me or reach out the Center. We are also organizing letter-writing campaigns and a penpal program with migrants. This in addition to our work bringing together diverse forms of scholarship about migration matters. Check out the calendar of events at https://www.international.ucla.edu/migration.
See also https://www.international.ucla.edu/migration/article/210862 for a list of actions you can take in support of migrants, including links to foundations that provide bail funds.