Behind the Walls of an Immigration Detention Center in Florence, Arizona [VIDEO]


In late May, I traveled to the US-Mexico border in Arizona to better understand why migrants undertake the life-threatening journey through the desert to begin a new life in this country. For some background on the ongoing yet little publicized humanitarian crisis in the desert, watch this audio slideshow.

I traveled to the border as part of an educational delegation from Long Island, spending time in Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico. During our time in Tucson, we met with 27-year-old Hector, a former detainee who spoke in detail about his experience in an immigration detention center. He asked that we withhold his last name in any related stories.

Hector was born in Mexico, but because of his parents’ volatile relationship, he began living with his godparents in the US at the age of 5 or 6, he says. Around the time he turned 15, his godparents formally adopted him.

According to Hector, his adoptive parents had no reason to believe he wasn’t a citizen—as a child, he had a social security card along with a US-issue birth certificate stating that he had been born in Mexico. But his godparents had never actually filed for his citizenship.

As a teenager and young adult, that oversight hadn’t affected him. He attended the University of Arizona and graduated with a dual degree in political science and pre-law, with a minor in Spanish. After college, he started his own business cleaning up construction sites.

In August 2010, however, Hector was arrested, and his lack of citizenship ensnared him in a nightmarish scenario. Police turned him over to immigration officials, who then placed him in an immigration detention center in Florence, Arizona.

Since his case is ongoing, he did not want to speak about the offense on the record. According to Hector, however, U.S. Immigration and Customs officials classified him as a Level 1 criminal offender, the least serious possible designation for detainees who have been charged with a crime.

Hector said he was afforded a special status during his detention: He translated for other detainees and had more access to center officials than most people in a similar position.

At the same time, he suffered psychologically, equating the experience with prison. There was economic damage, too: His business employed 10 people at the time of his arrest, he said, but while in Florence, he was forced to close it.

After five months in detention, Hector was released in January. He is currently working to obtain permanent residency, but he has been spreading the word about the conditions he encountered in detention and working with The Florence Project, an organization that offers free legal services to detainees.

Watch Hector speak about the overarching hardships of immigration detention:

(Video shot by Ted Hesson and edited by Amanda Treco)

Hector speaks about the lack of medical services he encountered:

(Video shot by Ted Hesson and edited by Amanda Treco)

Hector describes how detention officials reacted to what appeared to be a mentally unstable detainee in his cell:

(Video shot by Ted Hesson and edited by Amanda Treco)

(Photo credit: Robert Silz)

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