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Dream Detained: Immigration Detention in the United States (by Cynthia Van Der Heyden)

Date:04 June 2015
Eloy Detention Center
Eloy Detention Center

(Editor’s note: MA student Cynthia has just returned from a 3-month internship working on the “Undocumented Voices” project at Arizona State University)

6 a.m., Saturday morning. I had accepted the invitation of a local community organization to join them on their fortnightly trip to Eloy, a small, remote desert town about an hour from the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas. Based “right in the Heart of Arizona’s Future,” Eloy is located near numerous golf courses, movie theaters, balloon rides, and the famous Casa Grande Ruins. It is also notorious for housing one of five immigrant detention centers in Arizona. With 1,600 beds to fill each night, Eloy Detention Center is one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States (

Entrance to Eloy Detention Center (Photo:

It was this for-profit private detention center I was set on visiting. The community organization made these trips regularly, offering moral support to detained queer and trans migrants who often had not received a visit since their incarceration. Their latest mission was to document the living conditions of the detention center and collect their own statistics to counter those of the federal government, which were frequently exaggerated or otherwise incorrect. The six of us were each to meet with one of the detained trans migrants.

Immigration detention, an amalgam of federal centers, county jails and privately-run prisons, is the fastest growing form of incarceration in the United States. It is estimated that there are a total of 28,700 people in immigration detention, housed in over 350 different facilities. Immigrants are often placed in detention centers while they go through the legal procedure of removal, which determines whether they are to be deported from the United States. Sometimes immigration detainees are eligible for release on an immigration bond. Usually, this is the case for detainees with non-serious criminal histories and extended periods of residence in the United States. If they receive a final order of removal, they may remain in detention while the government makes arrangements for their deportation. Immigration detainees spend weeks, months, and even years in detention, depending on the degree of complexity of their case.

In Arizona, five detention centers, both in Eloy and the neighboring town of Florence, house a total of 3,000 immigration detainees. Eloy Detention Center is one of three immigrant detention centers owned and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (, the largest private prison contractor in the United States. On its website, CCA states that it is “the fifth-largest corrections system in the nation, behind only the federal government and three states.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) often contracts for bed space for immigration detainees.

Driving up, I already knew what I was in for. The car ride had been slightly tense, going over the questionnaires that we were to review with the detainees. “How are you feeling today? How are you being treated? Are you receiving the necessary medication? Have you filed any complaints recently? Do you feel threatened?” The questions seemed straightforward and simple at first, but revealed a small tip of the reality behind those four walls.

Eloy Detention Center is among the country’s most notorious private correctional facilities. It fails to protect its detainees from violence and it often denies them the most basic medical care. It comes as no surprise, then, that Eloy Detention Center tops the list of immigration detainee deaths. Records from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency show that ten immigrants have died while in custody at Eloy since 2003, more than at any other correctional facility that houses immigrants in the US ( According to an analysis by the Arizona Republic, these ten deaths represent about nine percent of the total 104 immigrants who have died while in government custody since 2003.

The queer and trans migrant detainees, however, are at an even higher risk. They suffer from daily discrimination, abuse, and human rights violations. According to the Center for American Progress, LGBT detainees are fifteen times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their heterosexual and non-transgender counterparts.

Eloy Detention Center is as unwelcoming as it is intimidating. The large concrete buildings and steel fences seem to stretch for miles. Our car drove into the dirt parking lot. Easter weekend, someone said. It was going to be busier than usual. Families and friends are only allowed to visit on Weekends and Federal holidays, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Some families drive for hours, only to be rejected at the door. I worried about having to present a European passport. I wondered if I would be questioned. The others assuaged my fears as I approached the heavily guarded entrance. “Just don’t mention our organization.” The door opened to a small hall-like passageway that was made up of chain-link fence. I entered the initial waiting area. Large families crowded the small room. It was loud. Children were running around, families were making small talk. I approached the guard’s desk to ask for a registration form. “Have you ever been here before?” the female guard asked. “No, never.” She sighed, agitated, and walked over to me. I hesitated. “I promise I bark but don’t bite.”

I was well aware of the fact that my colleague and I were the only white people in the room. The guard took the time to explain the process of visitation to us, something she never did for the others. In fact, other visitors had been continually yelled at by the guards and humiliated by an arbitrary process of rejection and approval. I took a stab at filling out the necessary paperwork. “Just make things up,” one of the members of the organization told me. “They never check.”

The community organization made these trips quite often. I asked one of the members if they were ever able to fundamentally change things. He told me their most prominent achievement had been the liberation of Marichuy Leal Gamino, a 24-year-old transgender woman who had been detained for over a year at Eloy Detention Center. Gamino had been stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border while seeking asylum from her home country, where she had suffered from a transphobic assault. Gamino had grown up in the United States, but had been deported as a young woman.

During her time at Eloy Detention Center, Gamino was housed with male detainees despite the fact that she self-identified as female. She suffered from bullying, lewd comments, sexual harassment, and threats of rape for weeks. She reported the abuse to the staff, but was ignored and told to “deal with it.” Soon thereafter, she was raped by her male cellmate. Immediately after the assault, Marichuy tried to report the assault, but the staff instead tried to cover up the attack by pressuring Marichuy to sign a statement that the rape had been consensual. Gamino was placed in solitary confinement, which human rights advocates called “punishment” for speaking out about the abuse. Immediately, LGBT migrant rights groups rallied for Gamino’s release. Since the judge had ruled that a $7,500 bond had to be paid to ICE, they held a fundraiser to supplement the money already raised by Gamino’s family, collecting $1,500 so there were sufficient funds to pay for Gamino’s release. Gamino’s case made national headlines (

After an hour of waiting, I was finally called to the front. I went through the elaborate security check and made my way to the second waiting room across the hall. Unfortunately, the detainee I was visiting had already received her one half-hour visit. One of the members told me to change the name on the paperwork like they usually did. I asked. The guard hesitated, but ultimately told me that I needed to fill out new paperwork. I received number 52. The number counter was on 15. I realized I would not get to visit, but patiently waited another two hours for the others to come back outside. I later asked them about their visit, and the stories they told me were not so much different than that of Gamino’s. The detainees are scared, feel isolated, and are threatened on a daily basis. I heard that one of the detainees had already been incarcerated for seven years.

It is obvious that there needs to be reform. However, for-profit private detention centers like Eloy benefit from the crackdown on immigrants. Roberto Reveles, an immigration reform advocate, has observed how the detention system has grown exponentially alongside the negative sentiment toward immigration in Arizona. “You build a strong image of fear of these immigrants, which creates a moral justification for imprisoning them, and at the same time brings in lots of money,” Reveles says ( “The politicians are not motivated to fix the immigration system. On the contrary, they’re benefiting from it politically and economically.” Recently, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called “to reform immigration enforcement and detention practices so they’re more humane, more targeted, and more effective … [a]nd to keep building the pressure and support for comprehensive reform” ( It’s a tune that has been sung before. One can only hope that someone will eventually muster the courage to change things around, because there is no such thing as humane immigrant detention. It is merely a dream detained.