Few people associated the candidacy of Barack Obama with a "get tough" approach to illegal immigration. But the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, has stepped up deportations under President Obama and at the same time, a network of detention facilities has expanded to house illegal immigrants. Correspondent Maria Hinojosa from our partner program PBS-FRONTLINE, along with the Investigative Reporting Workshop spent the last year exploring the hidden world of immigration detention.
In the past decade, three million immigrants have been detained in the system. One of them, a Canadian citizen, was a woman we'll call Mary. She agreed to speak only if we disguised her identity.
Her detention began when local police in Florida pulled her over in a routine traffic stop. They found a warrant for her arrest for a check she had bounced 10 years earlier. ICE discovered she had been living in the US for 15 years without a visa, so the agency sent her a thousand miles away to the Willacy detention center in Texas.
During her three months there, Mary says she endured repeated sexual assaults by a guard. Her voice choking with emotion, she told me how she tried to fight him off, and how he threatened her. "He said, 'if you tell anyone, you wouldn't come out of here alive to see your family.' So then, who do you go and tell?"
A cache of government documents recently obtained by the ACLU details more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse during the past four years. And FRONTLINE's investigation uncovered more than a dozen stories of sexual abuse at Willacy, and many other accounts of racial and physical abuse. When we visited Willacy, ICE would not let us talk with detainees or interview the local ICE officials. But we did speak with dozens of former detainees and staff.
In 2009, Twana Cooks-Allen was the mental health coordinator at Willacy. She was asked to survey all detainees as part of a broad review of the detention system, undertaken by ICE officials in Washington. When Cooks-Allen delivered initial findings of the survey, she says local ICE officials began a cover-up.
"I got bombarded throughout the day with those first 38 people that I had interviewed and the majority of them came in complaining or crying that they had been harassed by ICE." The survey was shut down, and, soon after, Cooks-Allen resigned her position at Willacy.
Despite all the problems, a 2009 audit gave the detention center a rating of "good." At the same time, the audit also said that 900 grievances had been filed by the detainees. Sigrid Adameit, a former guard says she saw a surveillance video of a vicious beating of a detainee in 2007.
"I basically saw a lieutenant, a sergeant and two officers beat up on a detainee. To me, it just looked half to death," she says. "He had been knocked off his front teeth, a busted nose. He had a black eye. He was bleeding everywhere." The reason for the altercation? Adameit says, "from my understanding, he talked back." Adameit says that officials asked her to clean up the statements of the guards to make them consistent and that the beaten detainee was deported the next day. "It was just covered up and next morning he was shipped out. If I'm not mistaken, he was from Ecuador, so he was on the first plane out."
Mary says that after three months at Willacy, she just couldn't take it anymore. "I said 'I want to go back home. Please. I want to go back home. Get me out of here. Because if this goes on one more time with me and I don't get out of here, I'm going to kill myself." Desperate to get out, Mary asked to be deported back to Canada, where we spoke with her. She left behind four US citizen children in the care of a relative. She says she's been unable to see them for more than two years.
As a candidate, Barack Obama had been sympathetic to cases like Mary's. At the July 2008 Annual Conference of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization, Obama said, "When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids — when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel. When all that's happening, the system just isn't working. And we need to change it."
This summer, the government did make changes at Willacy. The facility is still run by a private contractor, but has been taken over by the Bureau of Prisons. It now serves as a prison for repeat offenders caught crossing the border illegally. And ICE says it's now trying to reform entire civil detention system in the country.
"We're trying to do the best we can to move the system in a way that treats our detainees in a respectful way," says Kumar Kibble, the Deputy Director of ICE. "There are areas that we need to improve on. There are areas, places that we need to continue to work towards making better, but we're committed to doing that. It's an ongoing process and it's something that we're going to continue."
But critics say the vast network of 250 detention centers — the fastest growing incarceration system in the country – will not be easy to reform. Recently, the administration announced – that for the third year running – it expects to break records for deportations.