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Inside Our Supposedly "Humane" Immigrant Detention Centers

The interiors of detention centers might as well be black sites, cast off the political map except for the rare instances of abuse so egregious that they blip onto our radar.

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Then Jose pulled down the collar of his t-shirt and showed me the long, raised scars on his chest.

“This is why I don’t want to go back to Mexico,” he said. “This is from torture in Mexico.”

He says that Mexican federal cops tortured him in a town near the border, as he made his way back to the United States. He had been picked up driving without a license in South Florida and deported over a year ago. The police thought he was a member of a drug cartel, but he says he’s just an immigrant who had lived in the U.S. for 14 years. When the beating and cutting was over, he was left on the side of a dusty road in the border town. After three days living on the street, he decided to try to cross again.

Jose reached his hand out to shake mine and I began to meet him. But then I stopped, pulling my arm back and look toward the door, where Kitching was sitting on a stool looking down at the floor.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m sorry. He said I can’t shake hands,” and I felt the panic of guilt rise up in my stomach.

Jose pulled his hand back to his chest and rested it inside the open zipper of his jump suit, as if he was embracing himself. Another man who’d walked away from the legal training sat across from me.

“We are not bad people,” said the man, whose hair was parted handsomely to the side. He looked at his fingers. “It is the first time that I’ve had to bite my finger nails. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that, they wont even give us nail clippers. It’s demeaning,” he said, in English.

Immigration detention centers claim their share of criminal abuses—medical neglect like the kind that left Jose blind (120 people have died in detention centers since 2003) and rampant sexual assault by guards (records recently released to the ACLU document at least 200 allegations of abuse since 2007 alone). But for many detainees, the worst part of awaiting expulsion is not the acute trauma inflicted inside the jails. Most carry with them the unhealed wounds of violence from life on the outside that the humiliating baseness of life inside these jails reopens.

America’s immigration detention centers are in the business of warehousing men and women who have suffered trauma—the sorts of people whom reasonable governments should aim to protect, and indeed whom the U.S. has laws to protect. Instead, they are locked up, thrown into these legal purgatories and traded as pawns in a political and financial game.

The Business of Deportation

MacClenny, Fla., is the seat of Baker County. It’s mostly one street—a strip mall and a few mechanic shops, just under an hour’s drive from Jacksonville and 10 minutes through fields and forest to Georgia. There are about 6,000 people in MacClenny and the Baker County Jail is one of the largest employers in town.

The facility was built to foster growth. The county signed a contract with federal law enforcement agencies, mainly Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to hold their detainees. For ICE, MacClenny was perfectly located: not too close to a metropolitan center with a high density of advocates like Karen Winston, who make the work of deporting people more difficult, and an easy drive from Georgia, South Carolina and the rest of the Southeast, which has seen significant new immigration in the past decade.

Baker County, though, does not have an immigrant population—three quarters of its residents are white and almost all the rest are black. It’s only immigrant residents are among the people it warehouses, people who are shipped in from as far away as New York. Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson, a Methodist according to the county’s website, brought the detention center to town. With booming rates of deportation during the George W. Bush administration, Dobson figured immigration detention was the place to look for revenue. So in 2009, Baker County opened a new jail to hold county inmates and ICE detainees.

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