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The Secret Jails of Homeland Security: ICE Disappears People and Families and Lawyers Cannot Find Them

At Casa Juan Diego we receive calls from as far away as Central America from families of immigrants who are detained by U. S. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), calls from wives or husbands or parents who are desperate to find their loved ones.

We try to help, and we make calls and give out numbers of detention centers we are aware of, especially in Texas. We are usually not successful in locating anyone. We explain to the families that with 287(g) many are held in jails in small towns and may be difficult to locate. We have no explanation to offer about why, in this computer age, ICE does not provide information on where people are.

We are left only with questions: Where are these people? Why does ICE make it difficult, if not impossible, to find them? Are they dead or alive? If they are dead, after being captured here, what happened to them? Are they being mistreated?

Even in Texas, as a recent poll shows, the majority of the citizenry would like to see immigrants treated as human beings. A recent poll ( Houston Chronicle 2/15/2010) shows that 52% support immigration reform that includes a path to residency and citizenship.

The New York Times and a multiplicity of other publications have been reporting on the lack of medical care which has contributed to the deaths of 100 immigrants in ICE custody since the agency began in 2003 and about other situations of abuse and neglect of immigrants in privatized prisons around the country, prisons run by corporations like the GEO group or the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America). The problem of not being able to find people in detention is another aspect of the serious neglect and mistreatment of people made in the image and likeness of God.

A recent report published in The Nation magazine (12/16/2010) helped to explain why we have not been able to locate detained immigrants and why fears have been growing about the well-being of immigrants.

Jacqueline Stevens’ article in The Nation begins with chilling remarks by James Pendergrast, formerly executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination, to a conference of police and sheriffs: “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally, but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.”

This statement had been published earlier, but Ms. Stevens’ investigative reporting unearthed the methods used to make people “disappear” in the system. She discovered that in addition to the publicly listed field offices and detention sites, “ICE is also confining people in 186 unlisted and unmarked subfield offices,” in other words secret jails, around the United States. This was not accomplished by private prison guards, but by ICE personnel.

After discovering that the 186 secret locations existed, Ms. Stevens asked ICE represen-tatives about them. Those who were willing to speak at all insisted that these were just booking centers where people were held for a very short time. However, her further investigations showed that people were held in these places for many, many hours in difficult conditions in unmarked places. It there is a sign, it may only be a small notice: “Service Processing Center.”

“It’s also not surprising that if you’re putting people in a warehouse, the occupants become inventory. Inventory does not need showers, beds, drinking water, soap, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, mail, attorneys or legal information, and can withstand the constant blast of cold air. The US residents held in the Los Angeles subfield office called B-18, as many as 100 on any given day, were treated likewise. B-18, it turned out, was not a transfer area from point A to point B but rather an irrationally revolving stockroom that would shuttle the same people briefly to the local jails, sometimes from 1 to 5 am, and then bring them back, shackled to one another, stooped and crouching in overpacked vans. These transfers made it impossible for anyone to know their location, as there would be no notice to attorneys or relatives when people moved. At times the B-18 occupants were left overnight, the frigid onslaught of forced air and lack of mattresses or bedding defeating sleep. The hours of sitting in packed cells on benches or the concrete floor meant further physical and mental duress.”

Stevens noted that “Alla Suvorova, 26, a Mission Hills, California, resident for almost six years, ended up in B-18 after she was snared in an ICE raid targeting others at a Sherman Oaks apartment building. For her, the worst part was not the dirt, the bugs flying everywhere or the clogged, stinking toilet in their common cell but the panic when ICE agents laughed at her requests to understand how long she would be held. “No one could visit; they couldn’t fnd me.”

Not only are the conditions under which immigrants are held deplorable and similar at times to those which have been outlawed for terror suspects as being too harsh, but US residents and citizens are being caught up in these holding pens when picked up in raids or taken out of US prisons on the idea that they might be undocumented.. Ms. Stevens reveals that US citizen Mark Lyttle in 2008 disappeared after being turned over to ICE as a suspected “illegal alien,” even though he spoke no Spanish and had no relatives in Mexico. Lyttle’s family desperately searched for him, but “it never occurred to them that Mark might be spending Christmas in a shelter for los deportados on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.” Probably the reason the family could not find Mark as they desperately searched for him was that he was held in one of these secret ICE jails.

As ICE employees shuttle detainees around secretly, many are imprisoned for weeks, if not years, often in privatized prisons. The Colorado Independent , following up on Stevens’ article in The Nation , reported on January 25, 2010, that one of the Colorado state senators, Morgan Carroll, has had the same difficulty Casa Juan Diego and the lawyers immigrants have contracted to help them have had in trying to locate detained immigrants. She was very concerned about the secret offices where even elected officials could not locate people.

Trabajador Católico de Houston, Vol. XXX, No. 2, March-April 2010.