Londy Delgado Fernandez’s journey to Texas began with a crime not her own.
Fernandez worked in a small general store in Dolores, a small town in Guatemala. Over several months, she said, members of a local gang robbed the store three times and beat her. Gang members had already murdered another local woman, and now they started following Fernandez when she left the store, demanding she hand over the keys. “There was a risk that they would kill me,” she said.
Fernandez packed her bags. Eleven-year-old son in tow, she fled to Mexico where she hired a smuggler that got them to the border town of Reynosa. There, he held Fernandez and her son captive until Fernandez’s mother paid a $4,000 ransom.
Fernandez finally crossed into the United States, where she requested political asylum.
In doing so, Fernandez entered a judicial twilight zone, facing an immigration service geared to defining her as a criminal who entered the country illegally rather than a refugee seeking asylum. She was held in a detention center run by the nation’s largest private prison operator. The center was opened and stayed filled as a deterrent to other would-be refugees, despite a federal court ruling that imprisoning refugees with a credible fear of persecution, like Fernandez, solely to deter others was illegal.
Fernandez and her son were released after three months at the detention center in Dilley, Texas–but only after she agreed to wear a tracking device, the kind used for prisoners under house arrest, pending resolution of her request for asylum.
“I am ashamed,” Fernandez says of the ankle monitor, breaking into sobs. “I am not a criminal.” Asked which was worse, being kidnapped in Reynosa or her stay in detention, Fernandez said there was little difference. “I went from one dark place to another. In Reynosa, since I had money, I knew I would be let go. Here, I had no idea.”
An estimated 400,000 Central Americans cross illegally into Mexico each year, the majority hoping to make it to the United States. Most come from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, home to some of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. Because they are fleeing violence in their home countries, many appear to fit the United Nation’s definition of refugees. The 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, ratified by the US, proclaims a refugee should not be punished for entering a country illegally or “be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom.”
While U.S. officials acknowledge that close to 90 percent of Central Americans who enter the United States illegally, primarily women and children, face a credible fear of persecution or violence, the current policy is to still consider them a “top priority for removal.”
A federal judge ruled in July that the detention of children and their mothers in these instances violates a previous court settlement, but not much has changed: women and children are still being held in detention, although for shorter terms. According to Mohammad Abdollahi, Advocacy Director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) a non-profit that provides legal assistance to Central American women and children held in federal detention centers in south Texas, families are being released within 21 to 35 days. Those deemed likely candidates for asylum are held in the detention centers until they can post bond, similar to those required of criminal suspects, or agree to wear ankle bracelets.
Steven Walden, a lawyer who works for RAICES, said the U.S. is treating his clients as criminals.
“Why are we imprisoning victims who are refugees?” he asked.
Fear of Persecution
The Corrections Corporation of America, which received the contract without public bidding, has faced allegations of mistreating prisoners in Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. Detaining immigrants has proved lucrative for CCA. The company reported total revenues of $459.3 million for the second quarter of 2015, and said it earned $65.9 million for work on the Dilley facility in the second quarter of 2015, and $36 million in the first quarter.
While the numbers of those held at the Dilley and Karnes centers fluctuate, the facilities can house as many as 3,000 women and children, the majority of whom are seeking asylum. As of early October, Dilley housed about 1,800 individuals and Karnes about 500. According to the 2014 Emergency Supplemental Funding Bill released by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, it costs $266 a day to house someone in the centers. In contrast, incarcerating a federal prisoner costs $83.89 daily.
To gain asylum, the women must establish that they fear persecution if they return home.
Sonia Isabel Rosario, mother of a five-year-old daughter, said she and her family fled their native El Salvador to escape the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most vicious gangs in the Americas.
“They threatened my husband. He had a small mechanic’s shop,” Rosario said in an interview in San Antonio. “They wanted money but we never gave them any.” When the gang threatened to kill her family, the Rosarios sold everything and left for the United States. She was held in detention for 21 days at Dilley before she, like Fernandez, was dropped off at the San Antonio Greyhound bus station.
Former detainees are easily recognized by the red canvas shopping bags they’re given for their personal items when they’re released from the centers. Volunteers there often secure the women temporary housing at a Mennonite shelter.
The U.S. Justice Department, in a statement released in the summer, estimated nearly 90 percent of the women detained by ICE have a credible fear of persecution. Although a woman may be deemed eligible for release, ICE will hold her until she posts a bond – which most cannot afford – or agrees to wear an ankle bracelet.
Spokespeople for ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, declined to answer questions about the use of ankle bracelets, bonds or detention for this story.
A Policy of Deterrence
Andrew Free, an immigration attorney who has volunteered at Dilley, strongly disagrees with the government’s use of detention as a deterrent. “The government has to have a reason to detain …each person,” he says, “and the only constitutionally valid reasons are flight risk or danger to security. Deterrence is not constitutionally valid.”
In February, a federal judge in California agreed, ruling that it was illegal to detain families based on deterrence.
ICE, however, continues to hold women and children, saying it must do so to determine if they have a valid asylum claim. When they are found to have a credible claim, they remain, because they cannot afford to post a bond.
“The purpose of the bond is to guarantee a person will appear” at subsequent appointments– in this case, meetings with ICE officials or in court, said Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. Gilman, however, said ICE seems to be setting high bonds with a different purpose in mind.
“The procedures for setting bonds for immigration detainees were copied from the criminal justice system,” she continued.
“In the criminal justice system, if you set a bond, it’s not a decision to release. It’s a decision that may end up in release if and when a person can pay the bond.”
“Immigration officials are aware of the limited financial means of these families…yet bonds are set at very high levels which suggests an intention to set bonds at a level that requires continued detention,” she added.
While suspects in a criminal justice setting typically only pay a percentage of a bond, with a bail bondsman paying the rest, an asylum seeker must pay the full amount, she noted.
According to Aseem Mehta of the nonprofit Immigrant Justice Corps, a public-interest legal service group that represents asylum seekers for free, bonds at the Artesia, NM center where families were first held were initially set at $25,000 to $30,000.
“In Dilley and Karnes,” Mehta said, “we’re seeing $7,000 or $8,000.”
Johana DeLeon has interviewed hundreds of women in detention over the 15 months she has worked as a paralegal at RAICES. Few of them could afford to pay a bond of $8,500, she said. Walden, the RAICES attorney, said he had seen clients’ families sell cars and land and borrow money to raise bond.
In June, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, after a visit to the Karnes detention center, called for bond amounts that take into account a family’s ability to pay, and said the agency would cease using “general deterrence” as a factor in determining whether to detain families.
However, detainee advocates say ICE officers on the ground in Texas are either ignoring the directive or applying it so arbitrarily that there might as well be no policy.
ICE officials use a so-called “Bond Determination Checksheet” to help determine the amount of a bond. Nowhere on that sheet is anything about a person’s ability to pay. “I have never had a client say, ‘ICE asked me what I could pay,’” said Brian Hoffman, the lead attorney of the CARA Pro Bono Legal Project, which provides legal aid to detainees.
In July, a federal judge, Dolly Gee, sitting in California, ruled it was illegal to hold women and children in unlicensed, secure facilities, and ordered them released.
According to an earlier ruling called Flores, which Judge Gee upheld, children are to be released three to five days after being taken into custody by ICE. But she noted that during an “influx of minors into the United States,” defined as more than 130 youths, ICE may hold children longer. Soon after Gee’s decision, the centers began releasing detainees more quickly, advocates report, although bonds were still being set arbitrarily high.
Hoffman said that at Dilley, at least, ICE has been setting lower bonds, generally around $4,000. “Still,” he said, “I don’t think it’s realistic to think they can afford this.” At Karnes, according to Walden and other advocates, a group of women recently had bonds set at $8,500.
In mid-August, ICE officials began offering women who are eligible for asylum the option of being released with an ankle bracelet–a somewhat misleading term. The bracelet is a thick plastic strap that hold a tracking device, which is about 2.5 x 3.5 inches, against a person’s ankle. Most women say that it’s uncomfortable, especially when sleeping, and feel the monitor stigmatizes them. “We’re not animals,” says Ana Avigail Serrano, a 28-year-old Salvadoran who spent three months in Dilley with her two young boys. “You see animals with bracelets.” Advocates call them shackles.
Many women are reluctantly agreeing to wear the trackers if it means they may be released sooner. Some have sworn affidavits stating they were coerced into accepting the devices. Mehta says the documents they signed upon receiving the devices were written in English, which they could not understand.
Advocates have reported considerable confusion about the ankle bracelets among the refugees. Women have told them they didn’t know they still had an option to request a bond; they’re unsure how long they’ll have to wear the bracelet; and some believe ICE can listen to their conversations through the bracelets. Some women have refused to accept a bracelet as a condition for release and in those cases, according to Walden, “ICE can do just about anything it wants. They could say, ‘No bond at all,’ or ICE could set a bond at $8,500.”
Gilman says the trackers are not necessary or appropriate. “An ankle monitor is intrusive … and should be opposed just like detention should be opposed,” she said. “It’s only necessary if there’s a demonstrated need based on flight risk and that isn’t present in most of these cases.”
An ICE spokesman said that BI Inc., a subsidiary of the GEO Group, which runs the Karnes center, provides the bracelets at a cost of “about $5 a day per participant.” According to the 2014 Emergency Supplemental Funding Bill, the bracelets cost $7 a day.
A BI spokesman said the ICE contract prevented BI from answering questions.
On Aug. 21, Judge Gee instructed Homeland Security to expedite the release of children and their mothers, unless the mother is a flight risk or a danger to the community. Neither DHS nor ICE spokespersons responded to emailed questions about the government’s plans to comply with Gee’s orders.
“It’s as if we had an abuser accused of a horrific crime, and we put the victim in custody,” Walden said. Then, he added, officials decide to release the victim, but make her wear a monitoring bracelet.
“It’s an insane policy and it’s our policy,” Walden said.
Photos, from top: Londy Delgado Fernandez. Photo by Joseph Sorrentino. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announcing the opening of detention center in Dilley, Texas on Dec. 14, 2014. Official DHS photo by Barry Bahler via Flickr.
This article was reported with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.