Gender, Race, Policy, Inequality

Exclusive: Meet the undocumented, detained women of an Arizona detention facility

Undocumented women in detention facilities paint a picture of life behind bars inside the United States.

Miles and miles of cotton fields surround the Eloy Detention Facility. Enclosed with fences topped with barbed wire live detainees, only allowed one-hour of open-air free time. The institution wipes all individuality away. Detainees wear dark green scrubs, no makeup, no jewelry – just an identification tag with their picture and alien number.

These are undocumented women held in a detention facility. They serve time while they wait for their asylum case to go through the system, waiting for one of two responses:  permission to stay in the country, or deportation. However, the likelihood that they’ll hear anything about their case is slim. In 2016, more than 65,000 people applied to get asylum in the country in 2016.  Of those cases,  only 52,109 were completed. The numbers for recent years are likely no better.

In general, living in a detention facility is tough. Most detainees left their homes for a different life not expecting to have their fate in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. Their crime was to be in the U.S. without proper documentation, and because of this they live like prisoners where their conditions aren’t improving, yet they remain hopeful for a better life.

Confronted with physical abuse

Eloy isn’t the ideal place to be, but for some, it’s still safer than the alternative. Physically abused and left for dead, Rosa* left her children in Guatemala in a desperate attempt to save her life. She thought she could seek asylum Norte, Spanish slang referring to the United States. Instead, her expectation of a different life came to a halt when Border Patrol agents assaulted her just four hours after she illegally entered the country. They broke her tooth and busted her eye.

“I came looking for help, and it was worse here,” said Rosa* who’s been in Eloy for 16 months at the time of the interview.

Domestic abuse is a common reason for women to leave their homes. Veronica* wanted to be free from her abusive domestic partner, so she decided to try a new life in the United States. She’s been in Eloy for 17 months.

“I’m locked up. It’s the same as being in Guatemala,” said Rosa, explaining how her husband used to keep her locked inside the house whenever he wasn’t home.

Lilian* made a life-changing decision within three hours to leave Guatemala after she witnessed her then partner murder someone in front of her. He then immediately turned the gun on her. At the time of the interview, she had served 27 months in Eloy with no end in sight.

Now, all three women live in a co-ed detention center in the middle of nowhere. 

Distressed by gangs

It’s not just domestic abuse that drives these women to flee – gangs also play a role. Gang violence and extortion heavily influence forced migration. Extortion is considered a “common, effective criminal enterprise” in El Salvador. In 2016, there were more than 2,000 cases of extortion reported.

Vides* couldn’t pay renta, a weekly extortion, of $400 to the local gang that dominated her small town. She fled El Salvador with her son after they were threatened. She’s been in Eloy for 12 months. Now, far away from gangs she still has to deal with a different type of thug: the guards.

Discrimination inside the detention facility

Discrimination by officers is common. According to Miriam*, a detainee, she’s hassled because of her novice level in the English language. “We prefer to remain silent and not confront that type of abuse and discrimination. Not being able to speak the language limits us to express how we feel,” Miriam wrote in a letter in Spanish, dated Nov. 02, 2012. At the time the letter was written, she had been in Eloy for 10 months. 

There isn’t much to keep them busy. Some women use the time to attend religious groups, others stay in their cell to avoid confrontation. Teaching other women to read and write is a creative pastime for those who are literate. Vida and Rosa learned to write their name while at Eloy, but they still can’t read. Lilian and Vida do arts-and-crafts to make time pass.

Rosa has a job in Eloy that helps her days go by faster, where she is paid only $2 a day. In Arizona, an inmate gets paid between 15 cents to 80 cents per hour, according to a report by Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that works to have data analysis about the criminal justice system in the United States.

No chance for self-care

According to women in the center, when they need emotional help they’re reverted to a social worker who tells them to read the Bible. When they’re in physical pain, they’re told to drink more water with the occasional Ibuprofen. Their food consists of mostly tasteless bread, pasta, and potato. One woman went as far as to say, “I wouldn’t even give the food to the dogs.”

“Here in the detention center, at first, the people were of the worst…unsavory people, very aggressive… nowadays, things haven’t really [gotten] better,” Marilu*, 57, wrote in a letter, dated Oct. 31, 2012. She was an elementary school teacher in her homeland. When she wrote the letter, she had been there for 21 months.