U.S. Immigration Policy: Private Prisons and Shattered Families

In the United States, at least 5000 children are abandoned and left in state foster care, or in the care of extended family, when birth parents are arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many parents are deported with their children having little hope of ever reuniting with them again. On this day, we’ve been cleared to visit with a couple of mothers from Mexico.
laurie.melrood 2/8/2012


It’s an overcast day as we drive along an isolated two lane road, passing the Arizona desert scrublands pocked with non-descript gray green plants that extend to the horizon. Some colleagues and I are headed for a little out-of-the-way town in central Arizona called Eloy, home of a sprawling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center contracted to the private company Corrections Corporation of America. This desolation is what immigrants see when they’re arrested and transported from the U.S.-Mexico border two hours south. CCA-Eloy houses perhaps 1500 immigrants. According to the ACLU-Arizona’s recent report, In Their Own Words, on any given day, 300 of the detainees at Eloy are women. On this day, we’ve been cleared to visit with a couple of mothers from Mexico.

We arrive and are instructed to leave everything in the vehicle, carrying only paper, pen, and some cash for the vending machines. Our picture IDs are turned over to the front desk for the duration of the visit. We enter the electronically-monitored sally port and face a stark inscription proclaiming: CCA.747 CCA Detention Facility in Eloy, Arizona. Photo by Laurie Melrood

Nationwide, CCA manages approximately 75,000 inmates in more than 60 facilities located in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The prisoners including men, women, and juveniles at all security levels. A CCA publication available to facility visitors proclaims that, “for the fifth time, CCA has been named to G.I.Jobs magazine’s ‘Top 100 Military-Friendly Employers’ in America list.” These prisons are a now a fundamental part of the nation’s deportation dragnet, which has not only deported more than one million people since Obama took office in 2009, but is also tearing families apart.

We enter the dreary visiting room. Detainees sitting at a long table exchange conversation, mostly in Spanish, with visitors. Those who speak other languages, like Laotian, Mandarin, or Amharic, are too far away from home to ever get family visits. Uniformed guards hover around them. Loudspeakers interrupt the low-toned talk with institutional announcements. Peoples’ names and instructions terminate the strictly-timed one hour visits. Occasionally someone heads to the vending machines to buy a high-priced high-carbohydrate snack. The women's facial skin is bloated and pasty. Their middles swell out of their pajama-like scrubs. We’re told the diet is mostly pasta—you get chicken once a week. They wear cotton scuffs or rubber garden clogs. They don’t walk, they shuffle. What happened to their shoes? Their hair is carelessly tossed into buns or pony tails, barely combed.

We’re ushered by a guard into a visiting cubicle usually reserved for lawyers. The first mother enters, greets us with a wan smile, receives a hug from her advocate, and is assured that that we, the strangers, are “de confianza,” that we are good folks and won’t violate her confidence. She’s a single mother who’s been in ICE detention for more than a year fighting her immigration case and she is desperate to reunite with any of her many children. She tells what happened to her and to each of the children, the various fathers, and other actors. Her narrative rolls up and down and up again through various California counties, jurisdictions and police departments, juvenile courts, service bureaucracies, and ICE facilities. What is clear is that she was accused of some criminal act that she says she did not do, and that was never substantiated in court. Nevertheless, this caused her arrest, jailing, and the subsequent indefinite detention by ICE. The story is punctuated by tears of anger, sadness, and frustration. But most evident is her fatigue. "When will this nightmare end? Of all my children, will I ever see just one of them again?" she askes.

My colleague makes a couple of strategic legal suggestions. I tell the mother I will correspond with her. The hour is over and she is led away. We go out to get some water. We are no longer permitted to communicate with her.

The second mother, much younger, comes in already depressed and in tears. She has seen some children visiting with their detained mothers out at the tables. “Why can’t I see my children?” she moans and cries. Some of her children are in state custody, living in separate foster homes. Others are living with their paternal relatives. Her advocate tries to calm her. My colleague, in her professional role, has visited many jails and prisons. But, as a mother of children herself, this mother gets to her. She starts weeping herself and extends her hand to her. We all wait respectfully while she gathers herself to try and speak. Her story also moves around geographically up to the time of her arrest by ICE. She and her children suffered prolonged violence with one of the two fathers and she now has a lawyer working on fixing her immigration status based on her history of spousal abuse. Some hope there. But she saw a photo of her children that someone got to her and—Oh God—the children look sad and neglected next to Santa Claus, they are skinny and poorly dressed. “I always dressed them in the best clothes and even though I was poor, I fed them well,” she says. Again, she is on the verge of tears.

We sense it is unwise to continue the interview. Again, suggestions are made and we say we will do all we can to see about her getting a visit with the kids. She gives us some names and phone numbers. Her advocate embraces her, pats her hair, and intones assurances of support and caring to her. She looks hopeful as she leaves the visiting cubicle.

In the United States, at least 5000 children (at any given time) are abandoned and left in state foster care, or in the care of already burdened extended family, when birth parents are arrested and then transferred into ICE detention facilities across the country. Many are deported with the children having little hope of ever reuniting with their parents again. At a recent press conference in Tucson, Arizona, social workers, attorneys, advocates, and family representatives spoke of the impact on children of the “disappearance" of their parents. Professor Nina Rabin of the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law stated (see the video below): “If parents choose to accept their deportation, they risk being forever separated from their children, since their children will unlikely be able to accompany them so long as they remain in state custody. If parents choose instead to fight their deportation, they often remain detained for months or even years, greatly complicating efforts to reunify them. “



Laurie Melrood lives in Tucson and is a long-time immigrants rights advocate. See also "Children As Collateral Damage," by Joseph Nevins, November 7, 2011. For more from the Border Wars blog, visit nacla.org/blog/border-wars. And now you can follow it on twitter @NACLABorderWars. See also the May/June 2011 NACLA Report, Mexico's Drug Crisis; the Jan/Feb 2009 NACLA Report, Taking on Policy in the Obama Era; and the May/June 2007 NACLA Report, Of Migrants & Minutemen.


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