A story of the industry of detention and the death of due process
U.S. Border Policy
By E. Upton
To preface this piece it is important for me to certify that this story and its characters are fully fictionalized. It is also important to acknowledge that I will never be able to know what it is like to experience what is described in the following article. With that being said, Miguel’s experiences are derived from first-hand sources such as “The Land of Open Graves” by Jason De León as well as the coursework that I have done up to this point regarding immigration to the United States from Latin America. If you are interested in certified lived experiences of immigrants and their experience crossing the border, I would recommend looking into De León’s book and other first-hand accounts, such as the ones cited in this sentence.1, 2 While the story of Miguel may be fiction, the italicized section in the middle of this article presents statistics and information that are not.
Miguelito —The quaking voice of my mother interrupts my peaceful slumber. There is something off in her tone. My first emotion of the day is one of apprehension. Why was there a crack in my mother’s typically powerful voice? “He’s dead Miguelito … He’s dead.” My mother barely manages to croak out of her hoarse throat the words that make my world fall apart, “What do you mean Mamá?” I know what she means, but I cannot wrap my head around the significance of her words. “Papá, he’s dead” Immediately after this proclamation my strong-willed mother collapses onto my shoulder. My thoughts are at a complete standstill, my overtired brain cannot process the gravity of the situation. A million thoughts race through my mind at breakneck speed. I think of Graciela and her school. I think about my current job laboring the fields for Señor Gutiérrez in the agave fields beside the cathedral on the outskirts of town. I think about my father.
I still remember the day he left for America. The bittersweet memory is burned into my mind. I remember the hope in his eyes as he packed his bible and meager provisions into his pack and kissed my mother goodbye. He conveyed a vibrant optimism that contrasted heavily with the sunken tired face of my mother. Her face was lined with deep trenches of wrinkles and her strained smile looked as though it had been photoshopped onto the rest of her face. I remember my father turning to look at me, his eyes glistening with tears, yet so bright and joyful. I remember his tree-trunk arms, dark and leathered from years of working the agave fields wrapping me up in a powerful embrace, lifting me off my feet, and pulling my face close to his. The last thing he said to me that day echoes in my head now, “Miguelito, you must take care of your sister and mother for me while I’m gone. Don’t forget me when I’m gone mi corazón.” With this last line, he pressed a small crumpled piece of parchment into my tiny hands.
10 years later the same piece of parchment was tattered and had yellowed almost beyond legibility, but the words of Emma Lazarus were still clear:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”3
It wouldn’t have mattered if the wear had erased these words, they were ingrained in my mind. I could still hear my father’s deep, rich voice reciting them to me as I dozed off on the night before he left. I recall the sound of his footsteps leaving our room once he thought that I was asleep. He could not have seen the tears streaming down my chubby 9-year-old face. He could not have known that I was listening intently as my mother sobbed downstairs, pleading with him not to go. Or that I heard him sobbing back, and his voice, muffled by my mother’s shoulder, saying, “I have to… for Graciela and Miguelito. So we can pay for their college; so that they don’t have to work the fields like I had to.” I remember my little heart crying out for him, yearning to tell him that I didn’t care, that I would work the fields forever if it just meant being with him. But I didn’t tell him that, not even as he wandered away down the dirt road towards the bus station. I wonder how different he looked on that day from the night of his death. If his leathered arms still looked like tree trunks, even after his old Toyota Tacoma had crumpled against the front of the rogue semi-truck if his voice still had that deep resonant rumble that commanded the attention of any room he was in.
For years the poem was a constant reminder of the absence of my father. But as I matured, so too did my understanding of the poem. It was the reason for the bright hope that had been in my father’s eyes when he left. It turned from a reminder that my father was gone into a reminder of my father’s love and optimism. In the coming months, it would be a much-needed reminder of that.
Three weeks after my father’s death, my household was in ruins, the meager income that I got from working the fields and the money my mother earned from her restaurant job were not enough to support the three of us. My mother was a shell, her once emerald green eyes now a dull shade of pewter green, her once rosy cheeks fraught with wrinkles. Her body couldn’t take working her long shifts so soon after my father’s death. As I walk into the kitchen I hesitate, I look down at my dirty hands and think about the conversation I had with Señor Gutierrez earlier that day. “Miguel I’m sorry but I cannot afford it anymore.” After a long dry summer, the agave fields had not yielded enough fruit for him to pay me anymore. I needed to follow in my father’s footsteps, try my luck. Without my income from the fields, we were doomed. I needed to knock on the golden door and attempt the long arduous journey to America. I had packed my bag the night before. My mother didn’t know any of this yet; about my job or my decision. I dreaded telling her, worried that her poor beaten soul wouldn’t be able to take the thought of her Miguelito leaving. Nevertheless, that night I did. Her frail heart didn’t have the strength to argue with me, she simply collapsed into a fit of wretched sobbing, her once beautiful voice struggling to croak out her protests.
Her cries were the only thing on my mind as I stared out the bus window at the weathered fields of my home. Yet my mind wandered; I wondered if this would be the last time that I saw these fields. If I would be successful in my journey, or if I would join my father in the heavens. When I was younger Oaxaca had been a prominent agricultural state with smaller family farms producing some of the best crops in the world. That all changed when the markets opened up. The influx of cheap, foreign, industrially produced crops overwhelmed the local supermarkets, driving out local produce and impoverishing farmers like Señor Gutiérrez. I remember the news was full of politicians talking about how some new policy called NAFTA was opening the country to economic prosperity like never before, but I saw none of that in Oaxaca.
1 week later and I arrived in Nogales. The journey there had been relatively uneventful, I had purchased a bus ticket with three-quarters of the money I’d saved for the trip. The remaining 500 pesos felt like they were burning a hole in my pocket, but I knew from what I’d heard from others on the bus that I would need every one of them for buying supplies for the journey to come. The desert loomed ahead in my mind. A young man in his 20s who I had become friends with on the journey had been telling me stories about the desert, about how his cousin had crossed last year and had told him the way to go, about the job that he had waiting for him that he was confident I could join in on. Through all this, my excitement for my new life had been mounting, but the image of Graciela and my mother watching me from the door of our house as I walked down the same road my dad had once walked resonated in my head still. Behind the giddy anticipation was an iron fist of determination. I had to be strong, for Graciela, for my mother. Graciela was just finishing up her first year of Upper-Secondary Education. Her grades were the best in her class and she wanted to be a doctor. This meant that she had to go to medical school, and the money that I earned in America would allow for her dreams to be a reality.
As soon as we entered Nogales my spirits were significantly diminished, the border wall loomed in the distance, weaving through the hills and houses like some sort of sick brown and black snake. I had not pictured the border to be inviting, but I certainly had not pictured this.
The bus squeaked to a halt at a dusty bus stop near the center of town. Waiting there was a small crew of people from all walks of life. There was a mother with a small child in tow sobbing as she stared up at the bus. Her clothes were in tatters and a layer of dust seemingly coated her entire body. I could see her beauty through her desert veil, but her eyes were empty, what once may have been a vibrant emerald green now appeared almost black. Next to the woman was a boy probably 5 years younger than I was. Next to him, an old man, leaning heavily on the wall of the bus stop. The look in their eyes matched that of the woman, and I got the sense that those eyes were trying to tell me something. A warning for what was to come.
Francisco and I spent the night in a musty shipping container at the edge of town. He said that his cousin had told him about it, “It’s no Best Western but there are beds, and the shelter next door has a shower, so it may as well be!” Francisco’s humor was helping me maintain some kind of positive mindset, but there was only so much he could do. It was a long time before I fell asleep.
My eyes crack open to a loud banging on the side of the shipping container. I startle and jump to my feet. Any sort of fatigue from my lack of sleep the night before was quickly forgotten. Francisco’s bed is empty next to me, and I begin to panic. “Oye princesa!” Francisco’s carefree voice interrupts my panic, and my muscles relax. I walk outside to see what the commotion is, Francisco is standing there with his dirty work boots upended. “I had some rocks in there from earlier this morning,” Francisco smirks at me as if he knows the experience I just had. I flip him the bird and walk back into our modest ‘home’.
We spent the day scrounging around town for any pesos that we could get at the last minute before our departure that night. I managed to solicit 100 pesos from a nice woman outside of a cafe in exchange for a small alebrije that my mom had given me for exactly that purpose. I remember her giving me two of them, “I may not have any money to give you, but I have these, use them well.” The memory of those words brought tears to my eyes, it was a gentle reminder of my mother’s love. The feel of the crumpled bills in my pocket is very welcome.
Now we’re at the local supermarket, preparing for the long journey ahead of us. Under the guidance of Francisco, I fill my worn backpack with tuna, two gallon jugs of water, and a variety of other items that we would need for the coming trek. Atop all of this sits my rumpled copy of The Colossus and the other alebrije my mother had given me, a colorful jaguar-like figure that she said reminded her of me. I grasp it firmly now, overcome with sadness and intense longing for one more dinner with her and Graciela. One more firm “Callate!” as I recounted to Graciela my stories about my day in the fields and quoted Senor Gutierrez’s colorful language a bit too well.
The crickets are deafening outside of the shipping container as Francisco and I say our final goodbyes to Nogales. Although I had only been in the city for a few days, it still felt as though I was leaving home again. The night is still around us as we descend the hill down to the small tunnel that goes below the border wall. Francisco shushes me as we draw near, and we listen intently for any noises coming from the tunnel, as bandits frequent this passage, preying on border crossers like us. We forge on and enter into the United States of America.
Three days later we are caught.
Border Patrol finds us wandering through the desert. My water had run out earlier that morning, and Francisco had run out the night before. Both of us were severely dehydrated and bleeding in several places from injuries caused by the desert. Francisco had slipped the night before while climbing up a scree-covered hill, and his thumb was jutting out at a wildly unnatural angle. We were still three days’ worth of walking from where we were supposed to be picked up.
I cry the entire way to the hospital. I’ve failed Graciela, she’ll never be able to follow her dreams, everything I had done was for nothing. Upon my return to Nogales, I would have no choice but to try again. I was in too deep now to turn back. This was easier said than done though.
I awake to the sound of clanging metal gates. Outside my window, I see the tall barbed-wire fences of the Santa Cruz County Detention Center. Francisco is gone, he stayed at the hospital, so I am left alone once again. I depart the bus and stare at the door in front of me, it is painted a dull shade of mustard yellow.
This is not what I thought Lazarus meant by the golden door.
This story about Miguel is a work of fiction, but many of his experiences are based on real first-hand accounts of the journey that hundreds of thousands of immigrants attempt yearly. Being picked up in the desert by border patrol is only the beginning of their troubles though. The U.S. immigration detention system is rooted in constitutional violations and corruption. The 21st century has been a pivotal era for border patrol policy and immigrant detention. With the implementation of Operation Streamline in 2005, the Obama administration drastically changed the process of detention, and in doing so began the cycle of systematic violation of immigrant rights.
Some of the most paramount rights granted by the U.S. Constitution are found in the 5th Amendment. These rights preserve the integrity of the judicial system and the freedoms of those who pass through it. Operation Streamline began a new process of slamming hundreds of illegal immigrants through courtrooms daily, with “The sheer number of defendants [requiring] nearly all judges to combine the initial appearance, arraignment, plea, and sentencing into one en masse hearing.”4 This results in lawyers representing dozens of clients a day. Many of these defense lawyers simply advise their clients to plead guilty to all charges without looking into their case further. The combination of lack of adequate legal counsel and shortened court hearings is a clear and present violation of immigrant rights. In the December 2009 case of United States v. Roblero-Solis“the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Operation Streamline’s en masse plea hearings in Tucson, Arizona violate federal law”.5 Yet these practices continue today. It is valid as well to ask whether or not illegal immigrants are protected under the U.S. Constitution. This question is concretely answered; however, by the ruling in the 1993 Supreme Court case of Reno v. Flores in which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “it is well established that the Fifth Amendment entitles aliens to due process of law in deportation proceedings.”6 The flaws in this system contribute heavily to the conclusion that due process in America is, in fact, dead.
The violation of rights does not end there though. Detention centers themselves are wrought with clear violations of not just basic morals, but also given constitutional rights. One of the clearest and most present violations is in the detention centers’ usage of detained immigrants for cheap labor. This labor yields the immigrants a pay of “13 cents an hour, [saving] the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum 24 wage.”7 This disturbing practice is only scratching the surface of detention center horror statistics, though. Between January 2010 and July 2016, “the Department of Homeland Security received 33,126 complaints of sexual and physical abuse [in immigration detention centers] … but investigated only 570.”8 This abuse is combined with harrowing living conditions, in a review of more than 7,000 asylum cases, “61.8% reported issues related to food and water, 34.5% reported issues related to hygiene, and 45.6% reported issues related to the inability to sleep, overcrowded conditions, confinement, and the temperature being too cold.”9 Modern detention practices blatantly violate basic human rights and reveal the lack of human decency within the administration of both this country and the industries of border control and detention.
The financial side of this tragedy reveals where the driving factors of this problem are created. In terms of government agencies, “Since the creation of DHS in 2003, ICE spending has nearly tripled, from $3.3 billion to $8.3 billion today. Much of this funding has gone to increasing the agency’s ability to hold immigrants in detention in locations around the country. [In addition,] since 2003, the budget of CBP, which includes both the Border Patrol and operations at ports of entry, has also nearly tripled, rising from $5.9 billion in FY 2003 to a high of $17.7 billion in FY 2021.” 10This funneling of government financial resources into the border industry is largely guised by the premise that these resources are being used for combatting drug smuggling, but from 2002 to 2008, “petty immigration-related offenses increased by more than 330% in the border district courts, from 12,411 cases to 53,697… During the same six-year period, felony alien smuggling prosecutions in the border courts rose at a comparatively sluggish rate, and drug prosecutions steadily declined.”11 This embarrassing failure in U.S. policy reveals that decreasing smuggling is not the true goal of these inflated budgets. The true goal can be seen in the private and largely unknown industry of immigrant detention. “The two largest for-profit prison companies with which the United States contracts to detain immigrants, CCA and Geo Group Inc., have doubled their revenues since 2005.”12 These same two companies are also deeply rooted in the U.S. government, “Between 2004 and 2014, CCA spent $18 million and Geo Group spent nearly $4 million on lobbying. CCA spent more than $8.7 million and the Geo Group spent $1.3 million to lobby Congress solely on Homeland Security appropriations between 2006 and 2015.” 13To top this all off, the defense lawyers that are hired for Operation Streamline trials make approximately $133,446 per year, almost double the average salary of a criminal defense lawyer.14, 15
From these statistics, it is strikingly clear that there is an industry of detention blossoming in the shadows, with its roots feeding off of the abuse and mistreatment of immigrants. Yet this sinister weed blossoms with the golden flower of US economic prosperity, attracting hundreds of thousands of migrants yearly. However, just as weeds suppress the growth of the plants surrounding them by monopolizing nutrients, so too does US economic prosperity flourish at the cost of the exploitation of immigrant workers and minority oppression. This suppresses the growth of Latin American economies and continues the cycle of migration.
I was detained for three weeks in Santa Cruz. I was found guilty in a ten-minute trial on my second day in the detention center. I didn’t even know my lawyer’s name.
I look out the window at the barren desert flying by. I hope that this will not be the last time I see the US. The detention process removed almost all of my spirits, but there was still one thing keeping me going. I couldn’t let down Graciela, for her, I must try again. I must make it across the border. I must find work. I must help my little sister. This was made significantly harder by my deportation; however, I was now on my way to Palomas, hundreds of miles from my shipping container in Nogales. Upon my arrival, I began the exhausting task of trying to find a way across the border. I talk to hundreds of people, each with the same story, each one trying to do the same thing I was, and each one with nothing new to offer. But the compassion of these people astonished me. There was no reason for these people to help me, they were doing the same thing I was, subject to the same exhaustive desire for freedom I was. Yet they helped me: a small child gave me the last sip of their juice box, an old woman gave me a small cross, and a weathered young man handed me a rumpled peso, to name a few. Bouncing from person to person I told my story and kept asking the same questions, “Do you know a young man about my age named Francisco?… Do you have any money you could spare?… Do you know anyone who can help me get across the border?” All that I got in response was shaking heads and apologies. Eventually, after hours of looking, a tattooed middle-aged man gave me a new answer. “My cousin is crossing in a few hours in his truck, he’s got a great hiding spot in the bed. He brings people across the border all the time, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you tagged along. I’ve got a little sister too, so it’s on me, my friend.” Everything I had ever been taught told me not to trust this man, but the exhaustion of the past month had beaten me down to the point where my bearings had left me completely and my diminished soul could not refuse such an incredible sounding opportunity.
Two months later and I find myself in a massive concrete room. Around me are hundreds of other immigrants that had also been abducted on the border by human traffickers. I had no idea where I was or who was holding me there. My leathered skin was like a worn tarp stretched over my jutting shoulder blades and protruding bones. My stomach is a black hole. I surpassed the point of starvation weeks ago. At night I sleep in this room in a pig pile of malnourished bodies. During the day they threaten my family, so I do whatever they tell me. They know who I am, but I won’t let them hurt Graciela.
1“Crossing the Border.”
2“Crossing the Border,” June 27, 2019
3Foundation, “The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus.”
4Lydgate, “A Review of Operation Streamline.”
6“What Constitutional Rights Do Undocumented Immigrants Have?”
7Sinha, “Slavery by Another Name.”
8Saadi et al., “Understanding US Immigration Detention.”
9Saadi et al.
10 “The Cost of Immigration Enforcement and Border Security.”
11Lydgate, “A Review of Operation Streamline.”
12Gruberg, “How For-Profit Companies Are Driving Immigration Detention Policies.”
14“Criminal Defense Attorney Job Description | Salary | Education.”
15Altman, Carlson, and Jaeger, “Operation Streamline: Estimated Costs for Tucson, Arizona.”