Lost in Detention

The story behind 'Lost in Detention'

Friday, October 14th, 2011 

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Today there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.  How we deal with this situation as a nation, founded by undocumented immigrants, is complex.  The Investigative Reporting Workshop thought this territory was perfect for our brand of in-depth reporting and storytelling.

In 2008, the Workshop hired its first post-graduate fellow, a recent Columbia University graduate. Stokely Baksh wanted to continue her research into the business of immigration detention at the Workshop, specifically focusing on whom the government was holding and for how long.  

The Workshop requested data going back a decade about people held by the U.S. government for deportation, including detainee names, when and where individuals were booked in and booked out of detention, and what prompted their arrest.  We asked for this information in several Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security, one of the nation’s largest, federal, law-enforcement agencies.

What arrived at our doorstep in 2009 was a mess of confusing and incomplete information that didn’t help us answer our original questions.  After months of trying to pry data from the agency about those being detained, it was clear that the government didn’t always know where the detainees were held, how long they were detained, or how much they paid to house and feed them. In fact, our records showed that in some cases officials might not have known whether detainees were actually in custody or even if they were dead or alive.  

Last year, PBS FRONTLINE joined the Workshop’s effort to understand better what happens inside the shadowy world of immigration detention.  We assembled a team of professors, producers, reporters and student researchers to investigate pieces of the detention puzzle, including President Barack Obama’s ever-expanding immigration enforcement net and the controversial Secure Communities program.  

Over more than 18 months, our team visited detention centers in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.  We talked with former detainees in several countries in North and South America about their detention, most of whom said they did not have lawyers.  Many said they felt lost inside a system where they were pressured several times daily to sign voluntary departure papers — whether they were legally or illegally in the United States, and whether they had a legitimate claim to stay. 

Reporters and producers uncovered a disturbing hidden world of sexual abuse inside these detention centers overseen by the federal government, but often run by private companies.  We focused on one of the largest centers in Texas, the Willacy Detention Center, where a whistleblower reported that there were problems with abuse, including sexual abuse.  

The Workshop and FRONTLINE also obtained sexual abuse complaint and investigation records from ICE through the American Civil Liberties Union. These more than 170 reports from 2007 to the present are a snapshot of what goes on in some detention centers, such as the lack of accountability for victims of sexual abuse, including at Willacy.

In Illinois, our team looked at the Obama administration’s widening enforcement net that purports to target the worst criminal illegal aliens, such as rapists, murderers and burglars. What we found was that fewer than 20 percent of those deported from Illinois had been convicted of a serious crime, according to ICE statistics.  

In those statistics are the stories of shattered families, such as the Arceos of Maple Park, Ill.  We visited their rural home nestled between a country road and cornfields during a heat wave in July to interview the family about their mother, Roxana Garcia, who was detained and deported to Mexico.  Roxana was stopped for speeding down a country road and detained by local police for not having a driver’s license. When officials learned that Roxana was undocumented, they handed her over to ICE for detention and eventual deportation under the Secure Communities program, in which local and federal law enforcement share information to better identify illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.  

Roxana left behind five American-born children, who are struggling in school and in life without their mother. Their father, Antonio Arceo, told us that he worries for his children.

“They don’t understand how their mother could have been thrown out of this country because of a simple piece of paper,” he said. “They are American citizens that are going to be productive for this country one day. How can you take away the most important pillar in their life, their mother? I don’t understand.”

Antonio has his doubts about making it without Roxana and is considering moving his family to Mexico.  But his kids are not Mexican, he told us.  They don’t speak or write well in Spanish.  David, the oldest child, said he gets really depressed thinking about going to Mexico. “Just the thought of having to pack every thing up and leaving my country to be somewhere I’ve never even been is just … it just isn’t right, “ David said.

On Tuesday, FRONTLINE will release "Lost in Detention." We will feature it on the Workshop site as well and will showcase several additional web videos, produced and edited by American University School of Communication Professors Carolyn Brown and Larry Engel, about migrants crossing to and from Mexico and the United States and those held at one detention center in Arizona.  Producer Catherine Rentz will report on sexual abuse in detention facilities. And we will feature an interactive map that our Director of Computer-Assisted Reporting, Jacob Fenton, produced. It shows the growth in detention facilities across the country over the last 30 years.