Point of No Return

With thousands of legal residents locked up indefinitely, far from home, Texas' immigrant detention centers are boiling over.
by Published on
photo by Jazmine Ulloa
Inside the Port Isabel Detention Center.

On March 10, 2008, 39-year-old Rama Carty, who’d lived in the United States since he was a year old, became Alien #A30117515 in America’s booming immigrant detention system. At the time, Carty never imagined he’d be shipped to seven detention facilities around the country. Or that he’d help organize hunger strikes in South Texas’ Port Isabel Detention Center, 2,000 miles from his Boston home. Or that he would inspire an Amnesty International investigation into human rights abuses by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Carty was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970. His Haitian-born parents worked there as middle-school teachers. The following year, they moved to the United States, where they also taught. Carty’s mother became a U.S. citizen. When he was 16, she petitioned for her son to become a citizen as well. The immigration agency, Carty says, did not process his paperwork before he turned 18. At that point, he needed to start his citizenship claim over as an adult. For one reason and another, like many legal residents, he never did. He didn’t know how much it might matter someday.

Like many legal residents, Carty assumed he had the same constitutional rights as a citizen by virtue of his legal status and longtime residence. When he left prison in Maine after serving two years for trafficking and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, he found out differently. Immigration-reform measures passed in 1996 made Carty subject to mandatory detention and deportation by ICE after he had served his criminal sentence.

“I figured I could get bond and work to reverse the drug charges,” says Carty, who claimed all along he was innocent. “But I couldn’t get bond because of the mandatory detention.”

Guiseppe Bongiorno, 44, is a detainee at Port Isabel Processing Center. Originally from Italy, he lived in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Gravesend (a heavily Italian area) for the past 37 years. He was detained by ICE after he served 60 days in Rikers Island jail in New York City for drug possession, and has been in detention since then for 12 months. Bongiorno describes how he saw Rep. Solomon Ortiz tour the facility on Monday, Feb. 8, and tried to talk to him.

courtesy: Renee Feltz

Before a second stiffening of immigration laws in 2006, the official policy for immigrants (other than Mexicans) was “catch and release.” Under that policy, Carty probably would have been granted a bond and been given an immigration court date to determine whether he would be deported. But critics of “catch and release” had long complained that too many immigrants were skipping out on their court dates. As the 2006 debate over immigration reform grew toxic in Congress, the Bush administration announced a new policy designed to placate reform opponents: “catch and detain.”

The number of detention beds across the country quickly multiplied as the Department of Homeland Security tripled its budget for detention and deportation to $1.9 billion in 2007. ICE began detaining and deporting more legal residents for misdemeanors and crimes of “moral turpitude,” a growing list of offenses that runs the gamut from shoplifting to murder. By 2008, the year ICE deemed Carty a criminal alien, the agency had become the largest jailer in the nation, housing more than 378,000 immigrants in more than 300 private or federally run facilities. The criminalization of immigration has become so prevalent that it has its own buzzword: “crimmigration.”

Like other legal residents swept up in the crackdown, Carty found that once he landed in the immigrant detention system, he had no constitutional right to court-appointed counsel. He was herded into a small courtroom in Maine with five other men for his first deportation hearing: a videoconference with a judge that took a few minutes per detainee. “I didn’t have an attorney,” he says. “I had no documents on my immigration case history. I’d never been to Haiti in my life, and Congo didn’t recognize me as a citizen.”

So Carty was put in leg irons, with handcuffs anchored to his waist, and marched onto a government-chartered plane with other immigrants—some undocumented, some legal residents like himself. They were flown to Massachusetts, where Carty was locked up in the second of seven detention facilities he’d experience.

Carty’s story is hardly unusual: On average, 52 percent of ICE detainees—whether legal residents or illegal immigrants—are transferred at least once before they are released or deported, according to a study by the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Each time Carty was transferred to a new detention center, his fiancée and family were unaware of his whereabouts until he gained phone privileges. Each transfer also meant several additional weeks in detention while he waited for a new immigration judge to set a court hearing.

“It was very dehumanizing,” says Carty. “We have our lives invested here and have equity in this country, but there is no consideration for us at all.”

In December 2008, Carty was shipped to his fifth detention center: Port Isabel, 24 miles northeast of Brownsville. That, too, is a common story. About one-third of the nation’s immigrant detainees are housed in Texas facilities. Port Isabel and the neighboring Willacy County Detention Center, known as “Tent City,” are two of the state’s largest, which can hold 4,000 ICE detainees combined.

Like Carty, many detainees in Texas have been relocated from urban areas in the Northeast, where detention beds are scarcer. This brings them under the sway of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has earned a reputation as the most conservative in the nation regarding immigration rulings—a conveyor-belt to deportation. (See “Pleading With the Fifth”) Since most detention facilities are in Southern states like Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, ICE is sending an increasing number of detainees’ cases to the 5th Circuit. When they arrive at these largely rural facilities, far from home, they find few immigration lawyers available or willing to help.

Kelly Maharaj was entering his fifth day of a hunger strike to protest his 9 months of detention at the Port Isabel Processing Center when he spoke to The Texas Observer. Originally from England with parents from Trinidad, he was living in New York City on an overstayed visa when he was detained by immigration officials after he paid a fine for trespassing – a charge less serious than a misdemeanor.

courtesy: Renee Feltz

“It seemed like we were being set up,” Carty says.

Taking matters into his own hands, Carty started studying immigration law in Port Isabel’s meager law library. An official in charge of the library noticed his abilities and hired Carty at $1 a day to work there. He began to help other immigrants with their cases, including a man from Eritrea who’d been denied political asylum and was about to be deported.

“I saw his face the day he got the order,” Carty remembers. “He had the look of imminent death on his face. He had been tortured for two years in Eritrea, and he really thought he was going to die.” Carty helped him challenge the deportation; the man was later released on a parole bond.

The more Carty studied immigration law, the more he realized that many people were stuck in detention because they were poor and had no access to a lawyer. A recent report by Amnesty International found that 84 percent of immigrants in U.S. detention have no legal representation—either because they can’t afford a lawyer or because they can’t find one in the remote areas where most detention centers are located.

Carty remained at Port Isabel for seven months. The detainees there, he says, were unusually desperate. One man from El Salvador, he says, had been detained for eight years while fighting deportation. Carty and a few others tried to reach out to local attorneys to help such detainees. They attracted some media attention, but nothing changed.

One day, Carty says he was approached by two detainees who wanted to start a hunger strike. “We felt we had no other recourse,” he says. “We were ready to stop eating to let people know how serious things were.”

Last April, at least 100 men at Port Isabel participated in that initial hunger strike. Carty didn’t eat for a week. He relented after officials threatened to take away his access to the law library. “I would have crawled to that library to work on my case,” he says.

After the hunger strike had been broken—with its “ringleaders” transferred to other detention centers by ICE—Carty contacted Amnesty International. The human rights nonprofit had just released a report, “Jailed Without Justice,” which found, among other problems, that many immigrants and legal residents were being held unlawfully in mandatory detention. Carty persuaded Amnesty to come to Port Isabel and investigate.

On the second day of the Amnesty investigators’ visit, Carty was preparing for his interview with them when two guards told him he was being transferred to Louisiana. Carty says he tried to get to the phone to notify Amnesty, but was beaten by the guards. “They made an example of me,” he says. “They sent a very clear message that this is what will happen if you do something like setting up a meeting with Amnesty International.”

Carty was transferred that day. The next month he was indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of “assaulting, resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating or interfering with” the two Port Isabel guards “in the performance of their official duties.”

Carty used his self-taught legal training to petition for a writ of habeas corpus and challenge his detention. He argued that because neither Haiti nor Congo would accept him as a citizen, he could not be deported. On Dec. 22, after 21 months in the immigrant detention system, Carty was released when a judge granted his claim.

Carty returned briefly to Boston, where he was reunited with his family and fiancée. Now he is back in South Texas to stand trial for allegedly assaulting the Port Isabel guards. The detention center released footage of the incident to Carty’s public defender, Paul Hajjar, who says it shows Carty—as he claimed—being punched by an ICE officer. What it doesn’t show, Hajjar says, is Carty assaulting the guards. Port Isabel officials claim the security camera panned to another area of the dorm and didn’t record that part of the incident, Hajjar says.

While awaiting trial in February, Carty joined several Texas nonprofits in launching a “Dignity Not Detention” campaign to raise awareness about mandatory detention policies, lack of legal representation for detainees, and physical and verbal abuse in ICE facilities.

“The long-term effects of these detention policies—no one is talking about them,” Carty says. “People are losing family members by the planeload.”

While “catch and detain” began during the Bush administration, President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security regime has expanded the policy and pushed it aggressively to local law enforcement. Local police report non-citizens in their jails to ICE agents, who place a “detainer” on them—meaning they will be transferred automatically to an ICE detention facility, where they are held until a judge decides whether they will be deported or allowed to stay in the United States.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano often touts catch-and-detain programs as “an effective tool to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety.” But these programs cast a much wider net than Napolitano likes to acknowledge, targeting not only the undocumented, but also legal residents with spouses and children who are U.S. citizens. The vast majority of people who land in ICE detention are not “dangerous” criminals.

An October 2009 report by DHS showed that only one-sixth of the immigrants held under mandatory detention had committed violent crimes. “The majority of the population is characterized as low custody, or having a low propensity for violence,” wrote the report’s author, Dora Schriro, former director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning for ICE.

As the number of immigrant detainees continues to grow, the waits for hearings continue to lengthen, and immigration reform languishes in Congress, the atmosphere in ICE detention facilities has grown predictably volatile. Last October, the Observer reported on riots that broke out over conditions at a privately run prison housing immigrants in Pecos after a man in solitary confinement died from epileptic seizures. At Port Isabel, hunger strikes have continued. Last July, ICE had to obtain a court order to force-feed a legal U.S. resident scheduled for deportation to Haiti.

The hunger strikes have spread beyond Port Isabel. In early February, The New York Times reported that more than 100 detainees refused to eat at the Varick Detention Facility in New York City. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in SWAT-team attire used pepper spray to remove the men from their dorm. Some were beaten, the detainees told the Times. The “instigators,” as usual, were transferred.

The most recent large-scale hunger strike at Port Isabel began a week later. In a recorded telephone interview with the Edinburg-based Southwest Workers’ Union, which advocates for immigrant rights, detainee Dion Charles said that Port Isabel officials warned the strikers that it was no use to launch another protest. Charles said that Michael Watkins, ICE assistant field office director of the facility, “said they could get a court order to force-feed us. He said there was nothing we could accomplish with our hunger strike. No one could help us.”

Even so, the worker union estimates that 200 men participated. (ICE will confirm that only one person was, as the agency calls it, “voluntarily fasting.”) According to Charles, “We’d been on a peaceful hunger strike for 48 hours” when ICE agents entered the Charlie 4 dorm wing, which mostly houses legal residents with prior criminal convictions, to break it up. Two men refused to leave and were assaulted by ICE agents, Charles said. “They put handcuffs on them and were kicking and hitting them,” he said. Two other detainees, speaking to the Observer on condition of anonymity, said they’d witnessed the two men being assaulted.

Deborah Achim, who oversees Port Isabel and four other ICE facilities, offers a different version of events. The men were taken out of their dorm to be questioned and examined by medical personnel, “but two refused to come out.” Were they beaten? Achim would only say that there were “no injuries.”

After the sweep, 17 strikers were transferred to a privately run detention center in Karnes City, 56 miles southeast of San Antonio. “They were coercing others and discouraging others from eating and moving freely around the dorm,” says Achim.

KuJoe Agyei-Kodie was one of the detainees transferred to Karnes. The 36-year-old from Ghana was in the United States on a student visa, working on his postdoctoral thesis in electrical engineering at Morgan State University, when “things went horribly wrong” in 2008, says his friend Hollie Holt of Philadelphia. A woman from Nigeria whom Agyei-Kodie had been dating accused him of aggravated sexual assault, stalking, and telephone intimidation. He denied the charges and was acquitted of all of them except for phone intimidation, a misdemeanor.

“He didn’t want to plead guilty to the charge,” Holt says. “But we encouraged him to do it and move on because the D.A. was really gunning for him.”

Within seconds of pleading guilty, Agyei-Kodie was whisked away by ICE agents. “I was literally reaching my h
nd out in the courtroom to congratulate him, and they grabbed him and took him away,” says Holt. Agyei-Kodie and his friend had no idea that the misdemeanor to which he’d pleaded guilty was considered a crime of “moral turpitude,” a deportable offense.

“What happened to KuJoe was like a bad movie,” says Holt, who along with her husband James had befriended him in Philadelphia. “It’s really shaken my belief in our judicial system.”

Agyei-Kodie has been to three detention facilities. After eight months, he hasn’t received a bond hearing. He has no attorney. He knows that he eventually will be sent back to Ghana. First, he says in a phone interview from the Karnes facility, “I want to clear my name. I work in the high-tech industry. I don’t do drugs. I live a clean life. I don’t want this following me for the rest of my life.”

Two weeks after the latest hunger strike at Port Isabel, reporters were allowed a rare peek inside the detention center—with strict instructions to neither speak with detainees nor photograph their faces.

Passing the guard booth on the way into the facility, one hears the sound of gunfire rattling in the distance as local police officers practice at a firing range on the grounds. The center sprawls across some 300 acres, with several World War II Army barracks being used by the immigrant detainees. On this day, the facility was housing 687 detainees, short of its capacity of 850. Since September 2009, when a guard was found guilty of sexually abusing female immigrants in one of the dorms here, only men have been housed at Port Isabel. (The female immigrants were transferred to the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, northeast of Austin.)

As reporters were escorted through the Alpha dorm, which houses non-criminal detainees, men dressed in blue uniforms stared at us through large, plateglass windows. Each dorm is called a “pod,” with the detainees, all under 24-hour surveillance, housed in circles around a glassed-in guard booth at the center. Inside the booth, two guards sit in front of a console that controls everything from the lights to the detainees’ TV channels. It’s like a human aquarium.

Michael Watkins, the facility director for ICE, has worked at Port Isabel for 16 years. During the guided tour, he repeatedly emphasized that the center meets or exceeds American Correctional Association standards. Leading us through a freshly scrubbed kitchen, he pointed out a plastic bowl filled with chicken tenders, and macaroni and cheese. This, he said, is what the detainees had for lunch that day. “I’m not mandated to give them more than six ounces of food,” Watkins said, “but why not give them eight ounces? It doesn’t hurt me to go a little bit over and above.”

Watkins was not so eager to talk about hunger strikes. “Someone might not like their meal that day,” he said. “I don’t eat every meal every day. But if someone misses a meal, of course it’s a concern, and it’s incumbent on me to have staff ascertain why people are missing meals.”

After the tour, I asked Watkins and Achim whether they think it’s appropriate for immigrants in civil proceedings to be held in prisonlike conditions. They deflected the question. “We know there is going to be a new approach to detention,” Watkins said. “It’s coming, but we don’t know the details yet.”

Last August, the Obama administration indicated it would make changes—including opening more ICE facilities near larger cities, where there is greater access to courts, medical care and attorneys. Immigrant rights activists also were encouraged by a DHS study that recommended immigrants be assessed by risk to determine whether they should be held in detention awaiting a court date, or released into alternative community-based programs.

“There needs to be a risk-assessment model in place,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that is part of the nationwide “Dignity Not Detention” campaign. “Many people in detention are neither a flight risk nor a security risk.”

The Detention Watch Network, which advocates for reform, argues that an alternative system relying on electronic monitoring of immigrants awaiting deportation hearings would keep families together and cost just $12 a day per person—far less than the average of $99 a day the government spends to house detainees in facilities like Port Isabel.

Immigrant advocates acknowledge that changes to the “crimmigration” system would take years to implement. And the Obama administration has signaled that it will not de-emphasize detention. “We are going to continue to detain people, and we are going to continue to detain people on a large scale,” ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton declared in a press conference last August.

As the number of detainees swells, so does the despair and frustration. With every day that passes in detention, KuJoe Agyei-Kodie is among those losing hope in a country they once saw as a beacon of justice.

“There’s no reason why I should be in mandatory detention at the maximum-security level,” he says. “If something like this can happen in a country where the Constitution says all men are created equal, then it’s really a bad sign for all of us in other countries who look up to the United States.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.