Dozens of Cuban asylum-seekers held in an Arizona detention center are denouncing what they say is inhumane treatment, psychological torture and prolonged imprisonment, according to a letter they sent to a local humanitarian aid group.
Seeking freedom as political dissidents, the men wrote, they have instead been held for months, denied access to bonds and parole, and are forced to “relive all those tortures suffered in Cuba.”
“We do not ask too much, only the chance to leave behind the worst experiences of our life, we do not seek the American dream, we only flee from the Cuban government nightmare,” they wrote.
The letter came from La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy. The facility is owned by CoreCivic, a private prison operator. In 2018, it began holding people in the custody of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
The letter is signed by 53 men.
The detainees signed their names and listed their immigrant identifying numbers, known as A-numbers. Arizona Mirror confirmed through ICE’s online detainee locator tool that 29 of them are in ICE custody. Some names and A-numbers were illegible, while others didn’t show up on ICE’s locator tool — meaning they have been deported or were released from detention to continue their immigration case.
ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said in a statement that the agency can’t comment on specific cases unless it has their names, A-numbers and specific allegations or complaints. The Mirror shared with her the letter and the names and A-numbers of the men.
“ICE is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments, and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” she said. “ICE does not tolerate any mistreatment of people in its custody, and verbal abuse is no exception.”
Pitts O’Keefe added that ICE has channels for people in its custody to raise concerns, and said a letter shared with the public isn’t the best way to do that.
“Reporting such vague, anonymous and inflammatory accusations through the media is not an effective method for ICE to properly research legitimate allegations,” she said. “Publishing baseless falsehoods further insults the exceptional work the many fine men and women of ICE do to ensure those in detention are treated with respect, dignity and compassion.”
People who have been held in detention and advocacy organizations often insist there is a lack of accountability and reliable avenues for reporting violations at ICE detention centers.
Alejandra Pablos, a reproductive justice community organizer facing deportation proceedings, is among them. She spent two years at the Eloy Detention Center between 2011 and 2013, and was again detained there for two months in 2018. She said she saw a “deterioration of how the facility was run.”
“This time under the Trump administration, there’s literally no oversight, no accountability,” Pablos said. “Back then in 2011, when I was there I saw ICE agents, I saw the warden, I saw the chief of security, there was more of a transparency. This time around, nada. You couldn’t even put a complaint, there was no carbon copies. You couldn’t talk to nobody, you couldn’t complain to ICE.”
Pablos added there’s more denying of basic necessities like personal hygiene products and detainees can only have a medical consultation at around 5 a.m.
According to ICE data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), as of April 2019, there were about 1,700 people detained at the La Palma Correctional Center. Of those, 53 were Cuban.
Nationwide, there are more than 50,000 people detained in immigration facilities.
‘Their work is to deport us’
The document is the latest example of detained men and women who, through letters and protest, are pleading to be heard by outside. According to NPR, several hunger strikes broke at the beginning of the year in immigration detention centers. In New Mexico, a dozen Cubans in ICE detention recently participated in sit-ins and hunger strikes to protest lengthy detention and denial of asylum claims, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.
Victoria Lopez, advocacy and legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said the group visited some Cuban migrants detained at La Palma earlier this month.
“Folks are in a really desperate situation that is completely unnecessary and are asking for basic human treatment and human dignity,” Lopez said of the letter. “It’s important for the general public and communities around the country to understand that detention is a horrific experience for those that are facing it and is completely unnecessary situation from a policy standpoint.”
The letter was postmarked Nov. 22 and was sent to Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides services to seniors, homeless people and refugees in Phoenix and Tucson.
Connie Phillips, president of LSS, said the letter came unsolicited.
“The letter exposes the desperation that people have,” she said. “It’s a window into their experiences that most of us don’t see.”
The men in the letter describe detention officials telling them,“Go back to your home country.” In other instances, the men allege officials told them, “Nobody said you must come here,” and pressured them to accept a deportation.
“All of this without taking care (of the) physical and psychological consequences we can suffer, in this prison or in Cuba,” they wrote. “We perfectly know that their work is to deport us to our home country and to achieve it they would do anything without taking care of the consequences.”
They described experiencing depression and physical ailments like loss of hair and “eruptions and skin spots.”
A DHS report recently released details allegations from an ICE whistleblower on systemic problems with the agency’s providing and oversight of medical and mental health care at its detention centers.
In October, a Cuban asylum-seeker, Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, killed himself inside an immigration detention center in Louisiana.
In the letter from La Palma, the men said their objective is to bring awareness to their current conditions of detention, and asked for help from international human rights organizations and the local community.
No bonds or parole
In the letter, the La Palma men asked for release from detention to continue making their claims for asylum in freedom. Cubans in particular are facing new immigration hurdles, including increased deportation and detention, due to policy changes.
Although the “Dry Foot, Wet Foot” policy that allowed any Cuban who touched U.S. soil to stay was rescinded in the last days of the Obama Administration, Cubans who have lived in the country for a year can apply for a green card. But those leaving the island have recently been affected by changes in asylum policy.
While in detention, asylum-seekers can make an administrative petition to the Department of Homeland Security for release on parole. The La Palma men said they’ve been denied parole.
“The right to conditional freedom (parole) has been constantly denied to us, even having all the required documentation and fulfill all requirements they demand, manipulating us with banal arguments, psychologically torturing us, at such point that the most of us are so affected, and not only us, our parents, sons, siblings and the rest of the family in Cuba and USA too,” they wrote.
Blanket detention of asylum-seekers has been a key issue in immigration under the Trump Administration.
A 2009 federal policy requires consideration of parole for asylum-seekers who pose neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.
But recent lawsuits have shown the government has been repeatedly violated this policy. In 2018, groups sued the Department of Homeland Security’s practice in seven states of denying parole to virtually all asylum seekers in ICE custody. A federal judge ordered ICE to do a case-by-case review of each asylum seeker’s request for release from detention.
A similar lawsuit from this year covering ICE operations in five Southern states showed DHS was again denying consideration of parole to asylum seekers. In September, the court again ordered individualized parole decisions for asylum seekers.
Bonds are another avenue for people in ICE custody to be released from detention. The Trump administration also attempted to deny all bond hearing requests to asylum seekers, but that was blocked and deemed unconstitutional. Immigration bonds average $8,000, but in the case of a Tucson woman, bond was set at $43,000, the Tucson Sentinel reported.
The Cuban men in La Palma said they haven’t been given the option to bond out of detention.
“We have … been treated as criminals and been (deprived of) the most elementary rights, starting for the most important, freedom, precisely the motivation why we should leave behind our family, life, everything,” they said.