Apparent immigration detention abuses spark calls in Colorado for reform

The detention policies of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Colorado and the network of facilities that has grown here in the last few years are drawing increasing attention among local lawmakers and human rights organizations.

Critics of the system say men and women held on suspicion of immigration violations in the state are housed in conditions that rival those established for violent criminal offenders, that the immigrants are becoming fodder for a booming detention industry, and that detainees are often difficult to locate in the tangle of state facilities, which include unlisted so-called subfield offices.

The detention center in Aurora. (Katie Redding)
The detention center in Aurora. (Katie Redding)

The state of affairs has gained traction as national media outlets reported that more than 100 ICE detainees have died in captivity since the agency was created in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security.

The story took an additional turn here last month when the Colorado Independent, building on an investigation published by the Nation, reported that ICE operated at least four but perhaps as many as nine subfield offices in the state and confirmed that the agency was processing immigrants at the offices.

Local ICE officials confirmed that the subfield office addresses and contact information do not appear on the agency’s Office of Detention and Removal website. They said suspects were held at the facilities only for brief time periods, “up to two hours,” and they contested charges that the facilities were “black sites,” where detainees can slip through the cracks and effectively disappear.

Numerous reports and no surprises

None of this comes as any surprise to the protesters who gather once every month outside the state’s main detention center in Aurora, just outside of Denver, and perhaps least of all to protest organizer Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizing director for immigrant rights for the American Friends Service Committee.

“There have been numerous reports from the Government Accountability Office about the lack of immigrants’ access to legal counsel, to phones, to adequate medical care and about the indefinite nature of immigration detention,” Piper told the Colorado Independent at the most recent vigil in Aurora.

“Every day people are lost to their families. Every day families look for their loved ones. Because our system transfers people.”

Protesters prayed in a group on the concrete in front of the facility, as Piper spoke, hands waved in response from behind the foggy windows of the warehouse facility.

Piper said she once spent two weeks trying to locate a detainee who was reportedly being transferred throughout the system. She said the detention system even loses immigrants scheduled for trial.

Addressing the protesters, Aurora Democratic State Senator Morgan Carroll said the Colorado delegation in Washington should push to develop comprehensive immigration reform and fix what she called a “broken system.”

Not at all like local police stations

Carroll told the Colorado Independent that she is very concerned about the existence of the unlisted subfield offices. At very least, she said, those centers should be listed so that attorneys and family members can contact the people being held or processed there.

Carroll said that although the offices fall under federal jurisdiction, there may be a way local ordinances can be enforced to compel the Department of Homeland Security to list the subfield office telephone numbers and addresses on their websites.

Piper agreed, explaining that her organization is very concerned, not least because well-known facilities like the one in Aurora “already have so many visible problems.”

ICE currently lists only the Aurora Detention Center on its website. It lists the Denver subfield office as its point of contact.

Carl Rusnok, a Colorado ICE spokesman, told the Colorado Independent that the other facilities in the state are not listed because they do not offer public services.

“They are federal facilities but they are not public buildings,” Rusnok said. “It is not like a post office or a social security office. These are federal offices that do business but do not offer public services.”

He said that detainees who are booked at subfield offices are transferred to other holding facilities.

“At that time, [when they are transferred], they are given full access to telephones so that they can contact lawyers or family members.”

Another ICE spokesman, Tim Counts, told the Colorado Independent that the subfield offices are anything but secret.

“Anyone who is arrested on immigrations violations is brought to one of our field offices,” Counts said. “It may be, for example, a larger office, or the one in Denver, or we have smaller sub-offices all around the country, which by the way are anything but secret.”

He said the processes followed at field stations are similar to routine local police station bookings. “[Suspected illegal immigrants] are booked just like they would be in a police station: fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed.”

Piper took issue with that assessment.

“I think that that would be one main difference from a police station, actually,” she said. “A police station is published and you know were they are. There are signs out front.”

She said in trying to find detainees she has looked at the Aurora detention center and in four county jails around the state.

“Now I’m wondering,” she said. “I am wondering if they weren’t also being held in subfield stations where I couldn’t call because I didn’t even know that they existed.”

It’s more evidence she said of the main problem, that the agency acts with only loose connection to the laws of the land. What are the enforceable immigration detention standards? she asked.

“The detention standards exist,” she said. “But if you violate them, there is no penalty.”

She said it was up to Janet Napolitano and the Obama administration to create penalties that would force facilities to uphold the guidelines.

Cattle call in Aurora

Sen. Carroll said she supported closing the Aurora facility altogether and other for-profit operations like it around the country, which she said lay “beyond the reach of accountability, transparency — every part of due process that we normally assume is present when you detain someone,” she said, “like a trial, legal representation, access rights, you know, a finite sentence. Those things just aren’t present here.”

Carroll believes the Aurora facility represents the path the justice system in the United States has taken in the last decade away from core Constitutional principles when it comes to immigrants.

“The reason we are focusing on this facility is that it really is a symbol… When we are talking about immigration and immigrant rights, what we are talking about is at the core of fundamental human rights. What we tolerate and what we allow to pass as immigration laws and rights says a lot about who we are as a people.”

Carroll told the Colorado Independent that the Aurora facility ran a “complete cattle call” for the detainees, the product of “warehousing methods” where detainees are herded into group cells. She said the people detained are basically “serving [indeterminate] sentences in rooms with 40 to 50 other people.”

Rusnok said media reports were exaggerated. He said the people looking into this now should familiarize themselves with the laws. “This is immigration law 101,” he said. He added that immigrants were not held indefinitely. Once they are charged, no matter whether their home countries take up the case or not, they are released after an established period.

GEO, the for-profit company that owns the Aurora detention center, is the latest incarnation of the security corporation Wackenhut, which has drawn major charges of neglect and abuse for a decade. GEO receives more than $133 a day per prisoner held at the Aurora facility. The company, which runs prisons in the U.S. and internationally and was tangentially implicated in the recent “Lord of the Flies” abuses at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, was nominated one of Forbes’s Best 400 Big Companies in America (pdf) in 2008, for registering a 22 percent return over a five-year period.

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