Alexander Martinez says he fled from homophobia, government persecution and the notorious MS-13 gang in El Salvador only to run into abuse and harassment in America’s immigration detention system, reports Philip Marcelo and Gerald Herbert at the Associated Press.
Since crossing the border illegally in April, the 28-year-old has bounced between six different facilities in three states. He said he contracted COVID-19, faced racist taunts and abuse from guards and was harassed by fellow detainees for being gay.
“I find myself emotionally unstable because I have suffered a lot in detention,” Martinez said last week at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. “I never imagined or expected to receive this inhumane treatment.”
He’s among a growing number of people in immigration detention centers nationwide, many of whom, like Martinez, have cleared their initial screening to seek asylum in the U.S.
The number of detainees has more than doubled since the end of February, to nearly 27,000 as of July 22, according to the most recent data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s above the roughly 22,000 detained last July under then-President Donald Trump, though it’s nowhere close to the record in August 2019, when the number of detainees exceeded 55,000, ICE data shows.
The rising detentions is a sore point for President Joe Biden’s pro-immigration allies, who hoped he would reverse his predecessor’s hardline approach. Biden campaigned on ending “prolonged” detention and use of private prisons for immigration detention, which house the majority of those in ICE custody.
In May, the Biden administration terminated contracts with two controversial ICE detention centers — one in Georgia and another in Massachusetts — getting praise from advocates who hoped it would be the start of a broader rollback.
But no other facilities have lost their ICE contracts, and Biden has proposed funding for 32,500 immigrant detention beds in his budget, a modest decrease from 34,000 funded by Trump.
The rising number of asylum-seekers detained for prolonged periods is among the most concerning developments, said Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center. The number of detainees who have passed their initial asylum screening has leapt from around 1,700 in April to 3,400 in late July, making up about 13% of all detainees, according to the most recent ICE data.
Winn, one of the nation’s largest ICE detention centers, has long angered civil rights groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center in June called on the Biden administration to cancel its government contract, citing abuse, medical neglect, racism and other mistreatment at the facility, which is tucked in a dense forest in rural Louisiana and ringed by barbed wire.
Meanwhile, detainees and advocates call for closing detention facilities in favor of monitoring paroled immigrants with GPS devices and other measures.
ICE detainees at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey filed an administrative complaint last month with Homeland Security’s civil rights office seeking an investigation into allegations including poor sanitary conditions and medical neglect during the pandemic.
“At the end of day, we’re detainees, not inmates,” said Jean Claude Wright, a 38-year-old native of Trinidad and former U.S. Air Force officer named in the complaint. “But this is worse than prison.”