If They Survive the Desert, What Next?
Hundreds of Central American migrants die in the scorching desert, get murdered by gangs, or are killed by falling off ‘La Bestia’ on their journey north towards America. However, thousands of migrants do make it to the United States. These people leave their own versions of hell, with dreams of making it to what they believe is heaven, the U.S. Even for the fortunate, the harrowing journey is not over. Once apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol, they become stuck in purgatory.
News channels report undocumented immigrants being caught, or deported, but what happens to them in the meantime? “In Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, the Border Patrol apprehended 479,371 individuals along the U.S.-Mexican border,” says The American Immigration Council. After these people are intercepted, they are brought to a Border Patrol Station where they are put in a cell and processed. During processing, agents attempt to determine the health, identity, and immigration status of the individual. Detainees are fingerprinted and criminal records are checked. Then, officers decide whether they should be released, deported, or transferred to another federal agency.
Although some of them have escaped gang violence and sexual assault, they now have to face a new hardship; being locked up. These holding cells may not be hot as the Sonoran or Chihuahuan Desert, but they are far from paradise. In fact, they are notoriously known as “hieleras” or “iceboxes.”
Sofia, a 25-year-old seeking asylum, said, “It’s so cold, you’re trembling. Your lips split,” when referencing the holding cells.
Some argue that the conditions that undocumented immigrants are forced to live in are inhumane and the situation is becoming a humanitarian crisis. Without beds, families are forced to sleep on cement floors in overcrowded rooms. Lights are left on 24-hours a day. Water and food are scarce. Some immigrants have reported that the only drinking water they received was from a toilet tank.
Privacy in cells is also almost obsolete. “The bathroom was situated in plain view of all other detainees with a security camera mounted in front of it,” said C.S, a 17-year-old apprehended immigrant.
Sanitation is also an issue. Border Patrol holding facilities become extremely unsanitary due to a lack of resources and overcrowding.
“There was no waste bin in the cell so the trash was piled in the corner of the room. Toilet paper was thrown on the floor. The odor was awful because some kids had diarrhea and the mothers did not have soap to wash their hands after cleaning them or changing their diapers. The cell was cleaned once a day but we still had no way to wash our hands,” said a migrant interviewed by The American Immigration Council.
These individuals are also commonly denied communication with their family members. Husbands and wives are taken to different holding facilities with no way to communicate. More shockingly, it is also common for mothers to be separated from their children.
Border Patrol argues that these facilities are only meant to be for short-term purposes, justifying the conditions. Cells don’t have beds because theoretically, no one should be staying overnight.
“According to a 2008 [Customs and Border Protection] memorandum, a detainee should not be held for more than 12 hours,” says The American Immigration Council. Individuals that are attempting to fight deportation or seeking asylum are supposed to be sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. However, due to the sheer amount of people there is a lengthy backlog. Insufficient funding also delays the process. Immigrants are being forced to spend days or even weeks in these “short-term” facilities before being transferred.
Currently there aren’t any laws regulating these facilities. Customs and Border Control has their own internal guidelines for operation and standards, however, CBP is not following them. “Border Patrol seems to think these brutal conditions, and the human suffering that results, will deter immigration,” James Duff Lyall, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
Life after Border Patrol holding facilities is also pretty grim. Most people that aren’t deported right away are sent to long-term immigration detention centers where they may spend weeks or even years. These facilities emulate jails and effectively, migrants become prisoners. Even the innocent get locked up.
Dayani Cristal, the main subject of the award winning documentary film Who is Dayani Cristal?, shows us how the lives of migrants traveling from Central America to the U.S. are not valued. Found dead and alone in the Mexican desert, it is clear that Cristal and thousands of others suffer from from the invisibility and neglect that comes with being a migrant.
Even after crossing the border, migrants’ lives are still not valued. “It’s that they make you feel like you’re worthless,” says Claudia, a Central American immigrant speaking about U.S. Border Patrol Officers.
With hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants arriving at the U.S. border, immigration reform remains a hot topic among political debates. Donald Trump proposes constructing a massive wall separating the U.S. and Mexico to stop the flow of immigration. He also firmly believes in immigration detention centers. Similarly, Ted Cruz plans on building a fence that spans 700 miles in between the two countries, hiring more Border Patrol Agents, and continuing immigration detention. Bernie Sanders vows to redirect resources to Border Patrol facilities in order to make conditions more humane and to demilitarize the border. Hillary Clinton vows to end family detention and close private immigrant detention centers, but does not specify any changes to the operation of Border Patrol Facilities. The 2016 Presidential Election is fast approaching and candidates are expected to speak more about their stances on immigration.
Should the United States invest more money into making it more difficult for Central Americans to cross the border? Or, should the United States invest more money into improving conditions for migrants once they are already here?
Ways you can REACT:
- KNOW which presidential candidate you side with on immigration and other important issues. Visit www.isidewith.com and take the 2016 Presidential Election Quiz.
- REGISTER to vote. Exercise your right. Visit www.usa.gov/register-to-vote.
- STAY INFORMED. Visit www.immigrationimpact.com to stay updated on immigration issues in the United States.
- WATCH documentaries such as Who is Dayani Cristal? and Cartel Land to learn more about the complexity of immigration and border control.
- DONATE to the Colibrí Center for Human Rights to help protect the rights of migrants and their families.