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Leyva’s story is one of hundreds at this facility. Since almost all have Mexican or Latin American roots, it would be quite a feat to make a geographical or psychic connection between these detainees and the 9/11 terrorists and their sympathizers. Yet while Leyva has no criminal record and his legal situation is not directly related to post-9/11 policies, his prolonged detention is an example of how the government is overriding individual rights and due process in favor of a more efficient immigrant search-and-removal machine in the name of homeland security.
“The whole focus of the system has shifted from trying to enforce our borders efficiently to worrying about people who crash airplanes into buildings and using that as an excuse to keep immigrants out,” says Thomas Logan, an immigration specialist and veteran civil attorney. “Even people who are legal residents are suffering, but the government figures, hey, they don’t even vote.”
Katherine Owen is hoping to beat the morning rush of visitors as she steps into the center’s cramped lobby, where green-clad U.S. Border Patrol officers deposit their firearms in gun lockers and attorneys line up to see their clients.
A large metal sign on the wall informs detainees and their visitors that they “deserve to be treated with professionalism and respect.” Surly but effective due process would do just fine for the woeful inhabitants who have seen U.S. immigration laws turn from shield to sword and civil liberties evaporate like mist in the desert heat, which registers a mild 98 degrees at El Centro this morning.
A private security guard in a white jumpsuit greets Owen familiarly as the lawyer hands over a list of clients to be escorted to one of five phone booth–sized consultation rooms down a narrow corridor. Each room is divided by a thick Plexiglas panel and has carpeted walls and fluorescent overhead lights. Of the facility’s grim aura, Owen says, “I don’t think these are the downfalls. It’s the law that is hurting people.”
While the PATRIOT Act is what rankles most civil libertarians, the El Centro detention center is filled with legal and illegal aliens — about 400 of them, its director estimates — who have more basic problems. They have no money, no right to free legal services and many have been detained for lengthy periods with limited access to self-help materials such as computers and law books. And the reality is that they are up against stiff immigration laws that have been in place since way before 9/11. After 9/11, though, those laws have taken on new meaning.
For example, in 1996, Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), expanding the number of crimes that subject people to deportation. It also requires that noncitizens facing removal for criminal convictions as well as many non-criminal aliens be held without bond. What’s more, possession of any quantity of any drugs other than an ounce or less of marijuana became automatic grounds for deportation. Under post-9/11 guidelines handed down by the Department of Justice and upheld recently by the U.S. Supreme Court, judges have no authority to waive these requirements.
Without judicial discretion to grant conditional release, legal residents subjected to retroactive enforcement of IIRIRA are kept from their families for months while they face deportation proceedings for crimes they committed and paid for years ago. The government’s post-9/11 homeland security obsession coupled with a strict application of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s enforcement authority has overloaded an immigration system that was never the model of efficiency to begin with, folks in El Centro say.
“An awful lot of people need help down here,” says Logan. “Some are getting trampled and others are exaggerating their case, but these people do not have the full panoply of civil rights, and how to deal with whatever they have left remains to be seen.
“Judges, prosecutors and defenders are feeling their way through 50 years of guidelines that have been turned on their head.”
Zealous enforcement of IIRIRA since the terrorist attacks of 2001 has increased the flow of bodies in the system. Inspection forces along the Mexican border have grown threefold, according to immigration officials, and newly hired deportation field officers are charged with tracking down visa violators and individuals who fail to comply with terms of their bond release. At the border, officials no longer grant waivers for immigrants lacking proper documentation except for dire medical or humanitarian reasons. Instead of sending them back, they take them into custody for processing.
El Centro is one of eight federal detention centers around the country into which the federal government is pumping tax dollars to make room for the increase in immigrant detentions that results from these efforts. The Department of Homeland Security plans to spend $1 billion in the next couple years to house detainees and establish a program called “U.S. Visit,” which will require biometric data — fingerprints, facial and iris scans — along with visa applications so that immigration officials will know instantly who entered illegally or overstayed, resulting in even more immediate detentions.
But warehousing immigrants isn’t the goal, according to the government. “Our job is to move people out,” explains one immigration enforcement official who claims he is “proud of our programs” while also requesting anonymity. “We’re not running a jail. We want people released or returned to their home country. That’s our measure of efficiency.”