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Immigration Attorney Argues Against Locking Up Migrants Accused Of Violations

Immigrants prepare to be unshackled and set free from the Adelanto Detention Facility in Adelanto, California. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Immigrants prepare to be unshackled and set free from the Adelanto Detention Facility in Adelanto, California. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Host Jeremy Hobson speaks with César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández (@crimmigration), author of “Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession With Locking Up Immigrants.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Migrating To Prison’

By César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

I grew up in South Texas, four hours south of San Antonio in the southeast corner of the state, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hot, poor, and overwhelmingly Mexican, and in the 1980s it was a hub for newly arrived migrants. In particular, Central Americans fleeing civil wars made their way to the Rio Grande Valley by the tens of thousands. Working with Congress, the Reagan administration responded with money, federal law enforcement officers, and immigration prisons. The Valley became an immigration battleground.

In the farmworker housing project where my family lived, Reagan administration directives were not distant policy debates. They were life-and-death developments about people we knew: relatives, friends, friends of friends. As a child, I experienced the rise of a security-focused immigration policy mostly through overhearing adult conversations. Sometimes it took the form of a tío, an uncle, sleeping on a couch as he rested on his way up north. Other times it was my parents worrying about whether my grandfather’s English was good enough to get him across the border. In the days before passports were required to get into the United States, his U.S. citizenship didn’t guarantee he could return.

By the time I was a newly minted lawyer, I thought I was familiar with the region’s role in the story of U.S. immigration, but it wasn’t until I drove down Farm-to-Market Road 510 for the first time that I entered a part of the immigration-law world that I hadn’t known existed.

Every year, thousands of mostly white retirees take the out-of-the-way two-lane FM 510 to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge to see the animals: the snow-white egrets, the redhead ducks, the bobcats, even the ocelot—recently hovering near extinction—making their homes in the thickets of native bamboo. At the same time, migrants unwillingly travel the same route. Forced onto buses emblazoned with the Department of Homeland Security’s seal—an eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon and arrows in another—migrants peer out from behind dark windows and through metal bars. It’s a prison on wheels delivering migrants to the Port Isabel Detention Center, a 1,200-bed facility tucked between the wildlife refuge, a crop-duster airport, and the salty edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

The wild beauty stops at the facility’s guardhouse, where standard-issue prison architecture begins: chain-link fencing, concertina razor wire, layer after layer of security screenings, and steel doors. Inside, migrants are handed jumpsuits color-coded to reflect their security classification: yellow for people who present a low security risk, blue for medium, and red for high-risk migrants. From year to year or facility to facility, the colors change, but the rationale for them doesn’t: there’s no one here who doesn’t present a risk. Walking through metal detectors, with the heavy doors clanking shut behind me, accompanied by a guard and constantly watched through surveillance cameras, even I—an attorney waiting to meet a client—seem to pose a risk.

After days or months there, the migrants are brought into a small, windowless room and ushered onto long benches. At the front of the room, a judge presides over dozens of hearings five days a week. When I made trips to Port Isabel to represent people who were locked up there, Judge Howard Achtsam ran things. Migrants called him El Diablo—The Devil—because he deported just about everyone who walked into his courtroom. These days El Diablo works out of a nearby immigration court, but things remain tough for the Port Isabel detainees. Adding to the misery of confinement, almost all have to make their case for staying in the United States without a lawyer. In civil immigration court, there is no right to a government-paid lawyer. If you have the money, you can hire one. If you don’t, you’re out of luck.

Gerardo Armijo was one of the few who did have a lawyer—my brother, who, along with our eldest brother, heads the law firm I’ve been part of since my days as a new lawyer. I have a lot in common with Jerry, as his friends call him. We were both raised in the Texas borderlands about an hour west of Port Isabel. We were born into a community that is almost entirely Mexican. We are both Spanish speakers whose families have traversed the border.

There we part ways. I was born in Texas; Jerry in Mexico. I’m a U.S. citizen; brought to the United States by his mother when he was just eight months old, Jerry is a permanent resident—the final rung before citizenship, but crucially a step below the citizen status I was born into. Despite that, the United States is in his heart. While I finished high school and went off to the Ivy League, Jerry joined the Army. While I studied in plush libraries, he walked the streets of Iraq.

Patrolling in a tank one day, Jerry lost several friends to a bomb explosion. He survived, but the attack took its toll. “I got back to the Valley, and I was messed up,” he told me, his soft-spoken words revealing a soul torn between patriotism and trauma. When he returned to his South Texas home, the trauma proved too much for the Purple Heart veteran, and he turned to drugs. Jerry was convicted of possession and placed in a special state-run rehab program for veterans.

The combination of drug treatment, job training, counseling, and lenient sentencing for crimes was meant to get vets back on their feet—a thank you of sorts for their military service—and Jerry was meeting all the program requirements. Then, one day, he suddenly stopped showing up. No one, not his family, his friends, not even his lawyer, knew where he was. It turned out that he had been arrested by ICE and sent to the Port Isabel Detention Center. No one had bothered to tell his lawyer or the judge overseeing the rehab program.

Cases like Jerry’s highlight how far reaching immigration imprisonment has become. His military service proved his love for the United States, but to immigration law, it’s the passport, not the heart, that matters. The direct link between Jerry’s warzone trauma and his criminal activity makes him unusual, but not unique. No one is sure how many veterans have been thrown into immigration prisons because of crimes linked to his experiences in combat. War affects citizen and noncitizen soldiers alike. For migrants who join the military, though, combat-induced mistakes shred the hero status veterans return home to and turn them into what politicians—both Democrats and Republicans—like to call “criminal aliens.” In this, Jerry is indistinguishable from many people detained across the immigration prison network: longtime residents of the United States convicted of a crime who end up inside an immigration prison, waiting while they fight the government’s efforts to deport them.

Copyright © 2019 by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández. This excerpt originally appeared in Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

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