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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.
This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico, an nonprofit investigative news organization, and is published here as part of an ongoing collaboration with The Paper.
In late September, as thousands of Haitian migrants waded across the Rio Grande into Texas, video captured a horrifying scene of immigration officers chasing them on horseback and corralling them back into Mexico.
In the following days, many of the migrants had been flown back to Haiti or returned to Mexico, but at least 50 were brought to Torrance County Detention Facility, a desolate gray building about an hour southeast of Albuquerque. It is owned and operated by CoreCivic, a private prison company that houses male detainees for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as male and female detainees for Torrance County.
For weeks the Haitians were denied access to in-person legal rights presentations, and conditions at the facility were described as dire, advocates said.
On Nov. 5, a coalition of five immigrant-rights groups, along with attorney Allegra Love, with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative, delivered a letter to ICE. It included these demands: that pro bono attorneys be available for in-person legal consultations and confidential legal calls, that information in Haitian Creole be posted about these services, and that ICE halt deportations until migrants obtain legal counsel.
In addition, Love, who is working with 43 migrants, sent requests for parole — a mechanism that allows detained migrants to be temporarily released into the United States — for 23 of the Haitians, each of whom was sponsored by an American relative or friend.
ICE rejected 18 of the cases, saying there was no humanitarian issue that merited release, according to Love.
“I think they’re rubber-stamping it,” Love said. “Because I haven’t gotten a single response that leads me to believe they’ve actually talked to this person and talked to their sponsors, or considered it on any level besides opening the email and immediately denying it.”
ICE did not respond to requests for comment.
A Nov. 9 press release from the immigrant-rights groups described a litany of bad conditions, including poor food, mistreatment and inadequate medical care. One detainee told Love that he had a hernia and was given ibuprofen to treat it. Others complained that the water gave everyone rashes. Most suffer from anxiety, depression and weight loss following their traumatic trip north and ensuing detainment, said Love.
Love also asked her clients to fill out handwritten surveys, which were then translated to English from Creole, on Nov. 12. According to the translated survey shared by Love, one detainee wrote, “The foods here are not fully cooked. You also do not get enough food to fill your stomach.” Another wrote, “I have lung issues. When I eat the food, it makes it harder for me to breathe.”
Many complained about the water. One wrote, “When I first arrived and I was given the water, it gave me diarrhea and a horrible stomach ache. My body is now getting used to it.” Another wrote the water looked like bleach and had pieces of unknown crumbles in it.
Some expressed fear about being deported back to Haiti, dying in the detention center and not seeing loved ones again. They often did not know much about the asylum process.
“If I don’t have an attorney I think that they can deport me,” a 25-year-old man was quoted in the press release. “I don’t know what asylum is. I wasn’t allowed to speak. Nobody explained anything and they just told me I was supposed to have an attorney. I don’t want to go back to Haiti. I can’t go back. My family member was killed and his house was burned. My mom has just been crying because I cannot go back. If I go back I can’t even leave the airport.”
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Asylum is the legal right of people to seek protection from persecution in their home countries. To seek asylum in the United States, a claimant must show persecution based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social or political group. Right now, the majority of migrants are unable to claim asylum because of Title 42, an order of the Centers for Disease Control, which authorizes their immediate expulsion. According to the CDC, the order is necessary from a public-health perspective during COVID-19.
That definition has typically worked against Haitian migrants who, according to immigrant-rights advocates, suffer from a historical prejudice that they are “economic migrants” — and not asylum seekers.
That distinction infuriates Nicole Phillips, legal director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits based in San Diego, California.
“The stories coming from my clients, from friends, from my colleagues, from the news is one of utter terror,” said Phillips. “Anybody who’s in Haiti right now — whether they’re rich, or whether they’re poor, whether they’re employed, or whether they’re not — is scared to leave their house every day.”
Haiti is one of the most long-suffering nations in the world. Decades of poverty and political unrest came to a head with the catastrophic earthquake of 2010. In the past year, the simmering crisis has been worsened by yet another major earthquake, Tropical Storm Grace, ongoing social unrest and COVID-19.
Tens of thousands of Haitians emigrate yearly, typically flying first to South America — usually Brazil and Chile — and then traveling by land, crossing perilous geographic regions such as the 60-mile-wide Darién Gap, located between Colombia and Panama and controlled by drug cartels. This route can take months or years, depending on the migrants’ economic resources.
Advocates said that upon their arrival in the U.S., these Haitian migrants hearings were scheduled disproportionately faster than other nationalities. This fast pace doesn’t allow migrants time to compile evidence about why they are seeking protection or even to fill out asylum application forms, which run pages long and are in English, Love said.
This is not the first time Torrance has made the news for alleged human-rights and health violations. Earlier this year, it was reported that a coronavirus outbreak infected more than 100 inmates. And last year, Searchlight reported that migrants on a hunger strike were attacked by pepper-spraying guards.
In May, the ACLU of New Mexico and the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center filed a lawsuit against CoreCivic on behalf of nine former Torrance detainees and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.
CoreCivic, based in Tennessee, describes itself as the “nation’s largest owner of partnership correctional, detention and residential reentry facilities.” It has more than 100 facilities across the nation, and in New Mexico it manages facilities in Cibola and Torrance counties, as well as Grants, Albuquerque and Los Lunas.
This July, the Torrance facility received an overall rating of noncompliance with ICE standards, according to an inspection conducted by the Nakamoto Group, a private contractor hired by ICE to inspect its facilities.
The report found 22 deficiencies and the facility failed to meet basic standards of food service. It highlighted the fact that staffing levels were at 50 percent of the authorized correctional/security positions.
“I can’t stress to you enough how rare it is for facilities to fail their inspection,” said Rebecca Sheff, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico.
In 2018, a report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) described Nakamoto’s inspections as being “very, very, very difficult to fail.” One ICE official told OIG that the inspections are so lax that they’re “useless.”
It remains unclear whether CoreCivic will face any consequences for the failure to meet standards.
Ryan Gustin, public affairs director at CoreCivic, objected to the statement that Torrance had failed its inspection, calling it “a gross misrepresentation” and asserting that CoreCivic provides “three nutritious meals a day.” The facility gets its water, he said, from the City of Estancia, and that he was not aware of any issues.
But for Sheff, the inspection report “speaks for itself.”
“This report, and the company’s efforts to deny or minimize its findings raise serious questions about CoreCivic’s ability to fulfill its duty to ensure the health and safety of people detained at Torrance.”
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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.