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Drawing a Picture of Immigration Detention

La Raza/New America Media, News Feature, Fabiola Pomareda, Translated and Edited by David Boddiger Posted: Aug 12, 2009

Editor's Note:As the nations top immigration officials announce forthcoming changes to the shadowy U.S. immigration detention system, one former detainee describes his six months behind bars.


CHICAGO, Ill. -- Time seemed endless for Luis Len Ortega, who spent nearly seven months in various Illinois detention centers after being caught by immigration officials and scheduled for deportation hearings.

Leon The shadowy world of immigration detention has been in the spotlight lately with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials being forced to make public a series of reports about conditions at numerous detention centers throughout the country. The reports tell the stories.

Luis Len Ortega has the pictures. I used to draw to pass the time, says Len, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico. There was a Hispanic guard who always had pencils, so I asked her to lend me one and she did.

Lens drawings are simple, yet provocative. One traces the very symbols often used to highlight this countrys greatest attributes: an august bald eagle, the prominent Statue of Liberty, a bold Sears Tower, the nations stately capitol dome.

But these images are ominously juxtaposed against a symbolic wall -- the U.S.-Mexican border wall -- that twists into a serpent bearing its sharp jaws, mouth wide open and ready to strike. In the drawing the serpent is poised to devour a man trapped in its mouth, presumably the artist.Leons Sketch


Images of Stability

Immigration Detention Sketch There are 35 sketches in all. Some of them depict innocent childhood subjects like Disney characters, a dog with a Chicago White Sox baseball cap. Others are more conceptual, like the one depicting a tree whose vine-like branches covered in spines twist around a heart a common image in Mexican culture that could either reflect a loss of faith in God, or suffering of the heart. There is also the famous crime-fighter Batman one of his son's favorite drawings -- and an eerily simple depiction of his own isolation in jail cell number 115.

To add a bit of color to his drawings, Len purchased Kool-Aid packets and mixed in a little water.

Six Months, Five Transfers

Lens journey through the murky world of U.S. immigration detention centers began on a normal Chicago winter day, back in February 2008. He was pulled over by police and charged with driving without a valid drivers license. Authorities quickly discovered his undocumented status, and he would spend the next 30 weeks rotating between five different Illinois correctional centers. He only remembers the names of two the McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility and the Pontiac Correctional Center.

Every day, officers would try to get him to sign a voluntary deportation order.

"The first thing they do when you go to breakfast is try to convince you to sign your deportation papers. They did this every single day, Len recalls.

We werent allowed to have anything in our cells. Masked guards armed with large, rubber-bullet guns would search our cells. They swarmed in as if they were the SWAT team. If they found even a packet of sugar, we were confined to our cells for 15 consecutive days, he says.

His cell was just large enough for two beds, a shared toilet and a sink.

During meals, detainees were forbidden from speaking, so Len would look forward to the little time he could talk on the telephone with his wife and children. But even that was complicated, as phone calls were limited to 20 minutes each day and phone cards were costly. A $20 card yielded only three calls.

"Once they told me a lawyer was coming to meet with us. But there wasnt enough time. There was only one lawyer for 300 people. He managed to speak with only 10 people, and I wasnt one of them.

If access to legal help was nearly impossible, so too was Lens ability to turn to religion for comfort. In order to visit the chapel, detainees had to add their names to a list two or three days in advance. They were forbidden from having religious items in their cells, except for a Bible. A prayer card sent by his wife was intercepted and confiscated. The chaplains who did visit detainees spoke only English.

Once a week they would allow us to see our families for 30 minutes. But we didnt get to see them in person. We had to look at each other projected on a screen and we had to speak to each other on a telephone. I would go to a room where the telephone was, and my family would be in another room below me, Len said.

After six months, he was released on bond. The six-foot-tall, 43-year-old had lost a significant amount of weight. Pictures of Len before his arrest show a much heavier and healthier man. Today, his hands sweat when he recalls those months spent behind bars, where he was isolated from his wife and two children who lived at the familys Southside Chicago home.

Authorities have begun the deportation process against Len. His two U.S.-born children wonder if theyll have to live in a country they know little about, or face living without a father at home. Lens next hearing isnt until 2011, perhaps enough time, he hopes, for something to be done by President Barack Obama, who as a candidate promised swift immigration reform.

In the meantime, Len holds down a job and provides for his family by working six days a week at a local supermarket.


Pulling Back the Veil

For years, ICE officials fought to keep the treatment of immigration detainees a secret. Last month, a three-year legal battle ended with an order for ICE officials to make public a series of reports that documented inspections at numerous detention centers throughout the country. On August 6, ICE Director John Morton announced that one center, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, which held up to 400 detainees, would no longer be used for detaining families.

The reports, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and lawsuits brought by rights groups, confirm many of Lens allegations of ill treatment at the hands of authorities.

In Illinois, a report by delegates from the American Bar Association, who visited the DuPage County Jail in 2003 and the McHenry County Correctional Facility in 2006 (one of the centers where Len was held), found that detainees could not speak to legal assistants without an attorney present; could not see a doctor without a judges order; were denied dental care; and in at least one incident suffered physical abuse. The report also confirmed Lens allegation that detainees were unable to freely practice their religion.

Mary Meg McCarthy, director of the National Immigration Justice Center one of the groups that successfully sued ICE for public access to documents describing detainee conditions -- says she is happy the documents were finally made public. But she recognizes that many conditions detainees face remain unchanged.

"When the telephones dont work properly and visiting time is strictly limited, the individual rights of detainees continue to be violated, McCarthy says.

According to Gail Montenegro, regional spokesperson for ICE in Chicago, in 2007 ICE contracted the private companies Creative Corrections and the Nakamoto Group to inspect the centers where detainees were held.

Creative Corrections issued reports annually through June 2009 before being replaced by another company, MGT of America. According to Montenegro, Nakamoto continues functioning as an on-site monitor of conditions to guarantee that detainees rights are not violated.

ICE stopped sending detainees to DuPage County Jail in August 2004, but ICE officials say the decision was unrelated to the 2003 inspection by the American Bar Association delegation.

In a statement, Montenegro wrote that ICE officials learned of the attorneys delegation report on McHenry County Jail in early 2007 and quickly began addressing the reports criticisms of detainee treatment.

"(McHenry County Jail) currently complies with ICE detention standards and was recently rated 'Good' by Creative Corrections in its most recent 2008 annual inspection, Montenegro wrote.

One key issue left unresolved, however, is whether Congress and the Obama administration are willing to pass laws that protect detainees rights. Advocacy groups representing former detainees are lobbying for these laws, and at least two bills are under discussion in Senate committees.

But Homeland Security authorities acknowledged that a complete overhaul of the U.S. immigration detention system could take years. In the meantime, tens of thousand of undocumented immigrants remain in detention, their fates as uncertain as Lens.


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