GEO Group’s Florida Immigration Detention Center “Horrifying”
by David M. Reutter
Hundreds of undocumented immigrants are housed at the GEO Group-operated Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Pompano Beach, Florida, and many are victims of mistreatment and policy violations according to a report issued by an immigrants’ rights group.
The 71-page report, released on April 29, 2013 by Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ), included stories told by detainees to AIJ attorneys over the previous two years.
The report described incidents of alleged substandard or callous medical care, such as the case of one woman who was taken for ovarian surgery and returned to BTC the same day; she was still bleeding when placed back in her cell. Then there was a male detainee who had been passing blood for days without seeing a doctor. The report also included examples of food poisoning, sexual assaults, refusal of access to legal resources and substandard pay for detainee labor.
“There are a lot of different problems there,” said AIJ policy director Susanna Barciela. “There are Dreamers who were detained there,” she stated, referring to the DREAM Act, which would provide conditional permanent residency to immigrants who meet certain requirements.
“There have been cases of sexual assault. We see people with potentially valid asylum claims who aren’t given an opportunity to apply for an asylum case,” Barciela added. She said the AIJ report was already in progress when a pair of young activists infiltrated the facility.
The report supported data gathered by two National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) members, both illegal immigrants, who orchestrated their own arrests in order to be housed at the GEO-run BTC.
Once inside, the NIYA members said they found examples of detainees who had been unjustly arrested, some who were seeking asylum but had been ignored and others who were confined in violation of President Obama’s June 15, 2012 directive to defer deportation of qualified undocumented immigrants age 30 and younger who were brought to the United States before age 16.
The 700-bed BTC, which houses 595 men and 105 women, operates under a contract worth more than $20 million annually, holding immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Unlike Miami’s Krome Service Processing Center, which holds immigrants with more serious criminal histories, BTC houses non-violent detainees who have committed minor offenses, such as driving without a license, or no crime at all. It also houses newly-arrived immigrants seeking asylum or residency in the U.S. The AIJ report said detainees are held at the facility for weeks or months.
Juan Pablo Alvarez Castaneda, 21, spent five months at BTC after being detained by ICE. He had entered the United States from his native Colombia in 2007 on a conditional green card that he obtained through marriage to an American citizen. A July 2011 arrest for marijuana possession made him “inadmissible,” and he was held at BTC until a judge agreed to look at his case and prosecutors dropped the possession charge.
Other detainees pose no threat to the public, Castaneda said. He related the story of a man who could not produce identification when he tried to buy cigarettes, raising the suspicions of a government agent in line at the store with him. Another man was arrested for misusing 911 to repeatedly call about a neighbor’s threats.
Detainees and their attorneys complain that BTC has substandard medical care and poor food, and that detainees face prolonged stays, are depressed and have insufficient access to legal representation. “It’s bad,” said Castaneda. “For me, it was like a year. The days go slow, slow.”
The GEO Group has vigorously defended the facility. Company spokesman Pablo E. Paez said in a prepared statement that ICE has monitors on-site at BTC, and that GEO “adheres to strict contractual requirements set by ICE. The Center is audited and inspected by ICE on a routine and unannounced basis.” He also noted that BTC is accredited by the American Correctional Association.
To document alleged abuses at the facility, in 2012 NIYA activists Viridiana Martinez, 26, and Marco Saavedra, 22, turned themselves in to gain access to BTC. Both are illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children by their families.
They gathered the names and personal details of 100 detainees at BTC, then provided that data to attorneys and journalists. Detainees began calling a hotline set up by NIYA, which started publicizing their cases by posting online petitions.
Martinez and Saavedra were inside BTC for weeks before their activities were discovered. Once exposed, they were rushed to see an ICE official who determined they were eligible for release. “They literally kicked us out,” Martinez said.
Their claims caught the attention of 26 members of Congress, who wrote to then-ICE Director John Morton. “Some of the reports coming out of the center are horrifying,” said south Florida U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson and Alcee L. Hastings in September 2012.
ICE did not respond to the lawmakers promptly, leading Deutch to send a second letter, scolding ICE for the “excessive delay” and demanding an immediate reply. “It’s certainly time for us to hear back, and it’s well past time that these serious issues be addressed,” he said.
GEO Group “has provided high quality residential, medical, and programming services in a safe and secure environment to detainees” at BTC for more than a decade, the company wrote in a letter to the Sun-Sentinel when asked to comment on the lawmakers’ remarks.
Yet a federal inspection found there were three suicide attempts at BTC in 2011. It also found that 10 detainees were not screened within two weeks of their arrival at the facility as required by ICE standards. Detainee Angel Raymundo, 38, said he developed a hernia that grew to the size of an orange; BTC staff gave him pain medication, but refused to arrange and pay for recommended surgery. ICE later released Raymundo from custody.
BTC is the only privately-operated immigration detention center in Florida. “I think that this place is systematically set up to keep these women here – and on the men’s side, the men – because there’s money being made in this place,” Viridiana Martinez said on a Democracy Now! radio show. “This place is owned by a company, GEO. And every time someone is detained, they are given money.”
On August 20, 2014, dozens of immigrants’ rights activists staged a protest at BTC, blocking the entrance to the facility. The peaceful event was organized by the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FIC), Students Working for Equal Rights, United Families, Dreamer Moms, United We Dream: Tampa Bay, Homestead’s Equal Rights for All and Haitian Women of Miami. Seven students were arrested during the demonstration, ranging in age from 18 to 26.
“They were arrested for civil disobedience after they blocked the entrance so no one could go in or out,” said Mariana Martinez, who participated in the protest. “They were trying to stop the deportation of undocumented people for the day because families are being separated every day.”
“The inaction of Congress, the inaction of our president – we’re fighting for our families,” added Elizabeth Taveras, a communications associate with FIC.
The seven protestors who were arrested were later released on bond.
Sources: Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, http://latino.foxnews.com, www.geogroup.com, http://blogs.browardpalmbeach.com, www.immigrationdetention.org
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