Dispatch From Eloy: Detained, and Waiting for Reform

Inside Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, the newly prolonged wait for immigration reform is drearily familiar.

By Aura Bogado Oct 03, 2013

Every Saturday morning for the past two years, Alejandra Pablos’s family woke up early in order to make an hour-long trek from Tucson, Ariz., to the Eloy Detention Center, where Pablos was held as one of about 33,000 immigrants who are in detention on any given day in the United States. They’re among close to 350,000 people in deportation proceedings.

I joined the family in August, visiting Pablos with her mother, Rosa Imelda Espriu, her brother, Jesus Magaña, and her sister-in-law, Karen Magaña. We entered through multiple electrified gates and cages, accompanied by a series of buzzers and sounds announcing our passage. The family knew the routine and were even friendly with one of the guards. That camraderie is a distinct advantage when attempting to visit a place like Eloy, one they gained through their ability to arrive no later than 8:30 a.m., before Eloy’s main visitor lobby turns into a de facto waiting room, flooded with relatives who sometimes pile on top of one another as they wait to see loved ones. We were issued a number on a plastic card and filled out a visitor’s form. And waited.

After about half an hour, our number was called and our form was processed. The guard–a woman who chatted about taking a vacation to Texas or Florida with her own family soon–took our forms, along with our government-issued identification cards (undocumented visitors are not allowed). We were then asked to take off our shoes and walk through a metal detector. The security conveyer through which visitors must pass their shoes was broken, yet the guard asked us to send our shoes through it in grey bins anyway. Like so much that surrounds immigration, there’s a process here. Whether sticking to that process makes anybody safer is beside the point; it’s still followed, out of tradition and habit. Once our shoe bins were handed back to us, we entered the actual waiting room. 

Eloy, which is privately owned and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, holds four kinds of immigrant detainees, designated by jumpsuit color. Green, khaki and blue indicate what kinds of crimes, if any, a detainee has been accused of in the past. Those detainees who are placed in solitary as punishment are dressed in bright orange. Although Eloy Detention Center is technically not a prison, it certainly operates like one. It’s an immigrant detention center that, under federal law, does not hold people as punishment for a crime. Rather, Eloy holds people under civil immigration charges. That distinction is lost on detainees and visitors alike–the facility’s framed renewable business license, issued by the City of Eloy, hangs conspicuously in the lobby-turned-waiting-area. It reads simply, "Prison." 

It’s not just the detainees inside the facility who are being policed and likely feel punished at Eloy. It’s also those who visit them. Those visitors who don’t arrive by 9:00 a.m. on visiting days (restricted to Saturdays, Sundays and holidays) are likely to wait for hours at a time before their number is called. Because there are no seats in the main lobby, where the first round of waiting begins, nearly everyone sits on the beige linoleum floor. The lack of seats isn’t the only problem: there is no access to water, food, or restroom facilities in the main lobby. People occasionally change baby diapers on the floor–because to step back outside is to risk the possibility of not being let back in, through that long series of gates and cages. It’s crowded but cordial, as everyone awaits an opportunity to visit for up to two hours.

But despite the long, obedient wait, their visits aren’t guaranteed. The day after I visited Pablos, for example, I was back at Eloy in order to talk with another detainee. I watched as the same guard who had been so friendly with Alejandra Pablos’s family sternly told a woman and her small child, who had waited more than two hours, that their visit wasn’t going to happen. Detainees are only allowed one visit a day, and the husband and father they wanted to see had already received a visitor that day. The guard began to explain this in English, which was little help to the woman who spoke primarily Spanish, or to the baby who began crying as the guard raised her voice and shook her head no. There is no Spanish-language translation available for visitors at Eloy. And so the two left confused, both in tears. They wouldn’t be the only ones turned away after waiting a few hours that day.

Old Nightmares, New Dreams

Those visitors who do make it through the main lobby and into the waiting area for the first time are often unfamiliar with Eloy’s many rules. Cell phones and other electronic equipment are not allowed–though there are a limited number of lockers available to store them on a first-come, first-served basis. The facility doesn’t allow money, either. Any visitor who wants to purchase overpriced sodas and snack items from the numerous vending machines must first purchase a vending card. The card itself costs $1.25, and there is a $5 minimum purchase to use it. For immigrant families, these small costs add up.

The actual waiting area feels almost comfortable compared to the lobby, however. There are green and purple pastel seats, drinking fountains and bathrooms. A television airs whatever channel an unknown guard decides, as loved ones wait for names to be called. That additional wait can take between 10 minutes and three hours.

Once a detainee’s name is called, those visiting enter a corridor room and once again wait–but usually only for two or three minutes. The door opens, and one brief hug is allowed between the detainee and each visitor (only four visitors are allowed to visit a detainee at once). Visitors are told to sit across from, not next to the detainee they are visiting.

During my visit in August, Pablos hugged her family members, but quickly turned her attention to me. She was covered in mosquito bites. We talked briefly about detainees’ lack of access to medicine, such as cortisone lotion for the insect bites, but the conversation quickly turned to the Dream 9.

The Dream 9 are a group of people, aged 22 to 37, who made crossing the U.S.-Mexico border a visible media moment this summer. The nine included three undocumented activists who left the country in order to organize with six people who had previously lived in the U.S. and were either deported or left when they saw little opportunity here. The Dream 9 demanded release based on humanitarian grounds, and had arrived at Eloy just two weeks before I visited Pablos. She talked about them with excitement, explaining that they gave her new hope in her own fight against deportation.  

A few minutes into our conversation, I noticed that one of the Dream 9 might also be in the visiting area. I asked Pablos whether the young woman was one of the activists. Pablos turned around to take a peek and answered, "There’s a rumor that they all wear glasses, so yeah, she’s probably one of them." The woman in question was indeed the Dream 9’s Adriana Diaz–and although it isn’t true that everyone in her group wears glasses, bespectacled people do connote a certain sense of privilege within the incredibly oppressive space of immigrant detention. Pablos identified with the Dream 9: she’s a 28-year-old who’s always called the U.S. home, she speaks English, and she’s tough enough to defend herself against harassment by the guards at Eloy. Still, I wondered how she even know the Dream 9 were there? 

Pablos had first seen their images on television. But she was unable to hear the Spanish-language news story. To watch the shared television with sound, detainees must pay $7 for headphones and $5-a-piece for several necessary extensions to them–adding up to about $20, which Pablos figured might be better spent on ramen noodles to replace the daily rice and potatoes officials provide. So she actually found out about the Dream 9 through whispers and stories passed among the detainees, tales that quickly turned into legend. 

Eloy is divided into several pods. Detainees rarely, if ever, interact with people housed in different pods. Pablos was housed in the Bravo pod. The Dream 9 women were kept in Charlie pod. Eloy is designed so that Pablos should never really hear about anyone in Charlie pod, including the Dream 9. But the meal schedule creates an inadvertent vulnerability in the detention design.  

At Eloy, Charlie pod eats first, and women with certain health risks from all pods join them. Pablos first truly learned about the Dream 9, she told me, when Eloy was placed on lockdown during dinner. Pablos had a neighbor in Bravo pod that ate with Charlie pod, and when she came back from the mess hall that day, she explained what set off the lockdown. Two of the Dream 9 had stood up in the middle of the dinner and, in Spanish, encouraged women to call a free, legal-help hotline. They then began chanting "Undocumented! Unafraid!" as other detainees joined them and began pounding on tables.

Pablos says that word about the action–which resulted in solitary confinement for two of the Dream 9 women involved–spread like fire among detainees. She says the story both intrigued detainees and inspired them to fight not only for their own release, but for their fellow detainees as well. Pablos entered detention at 26, and at 28 now, she no longer feels young, but she says the action inspired her to do more. "I’m old, I’m 28," says Pablos. "[The Dream 9] have more balls than us."

But it’s hard to say who’s most courageous at Eloy. Those who’ve been there for years, like Pablos, wear sweats and thermals, items that are no longer issued to incoming detainees. Those vets, as they’re known inside detention, wear their sweats proudly, as a symbol of their resilience. Small things, like Christian scapulars and sweats (Pablos wore both) become precious in a place that strives to flatten people and lives into one obedient inmate. 

The Dream 9’s presence reminded Pablos that her fight against deportation wasn’t singular. Knowing that the media attention the Dream 9 were drawing would likely facilitate their release didn’t make Pablos bitter, either (they were, in fact, released just a few days after I visited Pablos). "I’m not fighting for myself," explains Pablos. "I’m fighting for the [Dream 9] who are here, too."

The Pace of Change

In some ways, Pablos was lucky: her family lives close enough to Eloy to visit often. Families who live in other states often struggle to find the time and money to visit relatives. Pablos’ family members are also all U.S. citizens, and Pablos herself is documented. She’s a green card holder who’s been accused–and sometimes convicted–of non-violent crimes, the most serious of which was driving while intoxicated. There are some 8.5 million green card holders in the U.S. and all are deportable if they break certain laws, no matter how minor. Although President Obama has insisted that his administration targets for deportation only people convicted of serious, violent crimes, the federal government’s own data reveals that people with minor convictions, for things like marijuana possession and shoplifting, often get caught in the dragnet. In fact, barely 10 percent of people detained meet the administration’s criteria, released in December 2012, of being a national security or public safety threat, according to a new study by TRAC Immigration. Even people who have never been accused, much less convicted of any crime are detained for deportation in communities across the country. 

As the visiting room began to crowd with more and more people, Pablos began pointing people out, explaining each circumstance, talking about which documents she’s helped translate for whom and why. When she talked about her own case, it was with a lot of reluctance.

She was honest about the mistakes she’s made in her young life. But part of her frustration includes not knowing where, exactly, to place blame for her situation. Pablos’s mother, Rosa Imelda Espriu, became a citizen while Pablos was still a minor. The family assumed that that would make Pablos a citizen, too, but that is not how the system works. Pablos didn’t gain green card status, or permanent residency, until she was 18. If she had become a citizen, none of her offenses would have turned into an immigration matter. To further complicate matters, Pablos entered into plea agreements that she didn’t realize make her deportable.

While the country waits for comprehensive immigration reform, a development that congressional observers of all stripes believe can no longer happen this year, enforcement continues at an all-time high. The president has argued he can go no further with executive power to slow his administration’s record-setting pace of detention and deportation.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), which organized the Dream 9 and is now working with what’s been dubbed the Dream 30, has refused to wait any longer. Organizer Mohammad Abdollahi wonders why so many hoped and waited for a comprehensive bill from a House of Representatives that made clear, early on, it would wouldn’t pass such legislation. "We wish more people would acknowledge reality," says Abdollahi. "The only time we’ve ever gotten anything done [on immigration] is by shaming Obama, and we know he won’t do anything otherwise."

Like it or not, Abdollahi has a point. During the 2012 election season, NIYA activists began a sit-in at an Obama campaign office in Denver, Colo., on June 5. Similar sit-ins spread to four states, shutting down the president’s campaign offices and demanding that he issue an executive action to halt the deportation of immigrant youth. Ten days later, Obama announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Yes, it fell short of an executive action and the president never acknowledged the movement that agitated for the change. Still, Obama’s announcement was a sign he was paying attention. Absent an election season, however, there may be a lot more waiting ahead before another change. 

For Pablos, the waiting game has been different: it’s one in which she has fought for more than two years against attrition in detention.

Just days before her mid-September court hearing, Pablos told her family that she would sign over her deportation papers and end her effort to stay in the U.S. if she wasn’t granted bond and released from Eloy. After two years in detention as a permanent resident, after two years of helping fellow detainees, after a glimpse of hope from the Dream 9, Pablos had grown tired of waiting. She said she didn’t want to waste the rest of her life stuck in the U.S.’s detention doldrums.

"I don’t know what I’m going to do with my Saturdays anymore," Jesus Magaña, Pablos’s brother, said after she announced her decision. The family had such a set routine: waking up early to make the trek from Tucson to Eloy, bantering with the guard to brighten the mood, adding money to the vending machine card, hugging Pablos twice per visit–and waiting. Waiting for days, then months, then years for her release. "These visits are such a huge part of my family’s life," Magaña said by phone from Tucson.

A few days later, Magaña called me again. 

"She got it," said the shaking voice on the other end. "She got it," he kept repeating.

In an instant, on a Monday morning, Pablos was issued a bond she had waited two years to obtain. Getting out on bond means the clock resets on her waiting game, counting down for a final judicial hearing on her deportation, which will be determined by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She will likely wait a while again before her case is concluded; the average wait on immigration hearings is roughly a year and a half. Until then, Pablos is back to the only place she’s ever called home.