Deaths & Dysfunction in Eloy, Arizona
Last week, I mentioned that one of the cases I was working on here in Chicago was a female detainee located at the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona. The woman was part of a class action lawsuit (she was one of the plaintiffs) and the organization I am working with here has been handling her case.
I actually went and took a "tour" of the Eloy facility back in January, when I was working at Casa Alitas in Tucson.
The Eloy Detention Center is notorious because a significant number of detainees have died here, rarely making a blip on mainstream news. One of the most suspect things is how a large number of the deaths have been ruled as "suicides."
From start to finish, the Eloy Detention Center tour was an insight into one of America's most shameful practices: detaining migrants, for varying amounts of time, and frequently denying human rights, due process rights that US citizens would benefit from, and the list goes on and on.
I remember that because I was by myself on this tour, I was luckily matched up with a group of very progressive college students from the East Coast who were on winter break studying US/Mexico border issues.
Upon arrival, the small group of us were seated in a conference room with one of the Assistant Directors of the detention center. I got the vibe that he was expecting a very timid group of college students (which interestingly, I was temporarily a part of).
One of the first questions that he was asked was from a student who looked him right in the eye and inquired: "How much money do you make a year?"
Unexpectedly startled, the Assistant Director squirmed in his seat and stumbled his way through the following answer: "Well, you know, it's enough to get by -- nothing too crazy -- but in the 6 figures."
In that moment I noticed the group's darting eyes locking with each other, in a whaaaaat fashion.
Without skipping a beat, the college student pressed on:
"How does it feel to be making so much money at the expense of a humanitarian crisis here at the border?"
It was the ultimate deer in the headlights moment, where he looked down at the table and said "I'm not sure how to respond to that."
And in my gut, we all knew in that moment that it was all about the money. It always was, and I hate to think that it always will be.
Whenever big amounts of money are involved -- it allows enablers of a dysfunctional system to more comfortably look away -- to be complicit in some of the worst oppression out there.
The daily cost of immigration detention is $164/person (I've seen this figure doubled in other estimates), and with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detaining up to 34,000 immigrants daily -- this totals about $5 million/day that the federal government is spending to detain immigrants.
When I drove into Eloy, Arizona 6 months ago, it was clear that nearly the entire town's economy revolved around the prison/detention center complex. The town of Eloy itself is relatively equidistant between Tucson and Phoenix, and isolated enough to where people wouldn't come looking.
It was a strange, visceral feeling of complicit oppression: that one person's detention was another person's source of livelihood and profit. I left the detention center and Eloy that day feeling unwell. And I unfortunately heard a detainee literally sick to his stomach during the tour.
While in one of the detainee pods in Eloy, the tour guide (ugh) told us one of the most repeated soundbites -- that the food at Eloy was "made by the same contractor that provides food to the American military" -- therefore making the quality "great." But the third or fourth time someone forced that line on us, we literally heard a detainee throwing up in the bathroom.
One of the college students looked at me and said in a deadpan voice: "Yeah, the food here is fucking awesome."
In Chicago but still in Eloy
So, when one of the first cases I received when I landed here in Chicago was actually a detainee in Eloy, Arizona -- all of the above memories came back.
And these are the moments when I feel like the traveling model is working -- when I have memory and knowledge of one place that I can use at the next.
But about the case at hand: this woman has been detained at the Eloy Detention Center for over two years.
Throughout my time traveling throughout the United States on this pro bono project, I have heard about a number of horror stories about detainees who had been caught in the immigration detention system for years. One of my colleagues in Chicago was talking about a case also in Eloy where a man has been there for nearly four years.
To me, this is the definition of being forgotten about. And anyone who tries to tell you that in America, all lives are valued equally -- needs a reality check.
I have been working on another bond motion to try to secure this female detainee's release in Eloy. She is a nonviolent drug offender, and I have seen a number of these types of cases get held up in the detention center system. No history of violence, no reason to think this person would be a great risk to society -- but still sitting in detention. And still costing taxpayers lots of money for what?
And her case has been stalled in the system for so long:
Two years ago she applied for a U Visa (for victims of crimes) and the service office that has been handling her case has issued various responses over those two years ranging from: "we need 30/60 more days" to "she's been moved to a different docket" to "we're currently processing her request."
But it's been two years.
During the two years she has been detained, she has suffered injuries from a fall because the detention center did not issue her shoes her own size (and she was not able to receive proper medical treatment), has been harassed by another detainee, and her spirits are essentially broken. After two years, it's understandable to see why.
Here in Chicago, we are working to creatively strategize other ways to help this woman out of detention.
In the meantime, we let her know that she is not alone by continuing to work hard on her case.
Also in the meantime, I constantly ponder how to make a dent in this absolutely broken system. We can't give up.