A Day at ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

By Fr. Jack Podsiadlo, SJ

I was recently asked to deliver a certified check for the release of a member of our church from detention at the Richmond office of ICE (Immigration and Customs enforcement). No one in the family could perform this rather commonplace task since they were not able to present proof of lawful immigration status, Photo ID, or a social security number. So I offered my services, thinking that it would be completed in two hours.

Richmond’s ICE facility is located in an office park and identified only by its address and a rather small sign resting in a bed of flowers. Clients, however, stand out a bit more; mostly Latinos plus an occasional person from the Middle-East or Africa. Women, often pregnant, with one or two children in tow, wearing a locked electronic ankle bracelet, arrive for their periodic pre-deportation hearings.

The waiting room fills up quickly and empties slowly. First the body search, then the data collecting, then the waiting and waiting and waiting. Agents, armed at the hip, rush in and out, oblivious of the humanity that surrounds them. Once in a while, a Latino agent mutters, Buenos Días. The room is never quiet. Latinos are always eager to share stories of homeland or border crossing, or life in the USA that usually includes the sacrifices to get to the ICE facilities which seem equally distant from all major concentrations of Latinos in Virginia.

Then comes the inevitable question: “where’s the bathroom?” One of the uniformed guards responds in Spanish that you have to leave the facility and drive to the main highway to the McDonald’s. The irony is that most of these folks were picked up for lack of a driver’s license. Now they are told to drive to the bathroom.

I arrived at 9:30, just a half hour after opening. Only two people were ahead of me. I figured I would be in and out quickly. Both were from El Salvador, trying to send money and bus tickets to relatives detained at the Texas border, hoping that if all went well, there would be a family reunion in a few days.

The one civilian administrator took her time gathering information then returning to her cubicle then out again and back to the cubicle. She always had a guard at her side. Around 11:00 a young Guatemalan father arrived with his four year old son in tow. They arrived in Richmond around Christmas after the thousand mile walk through Mexico where, the father said, they were not treated well and were robbed of most of their money.

Around 1:30, alone in the waiting room, I was waited on.  One of the guards told the administrator that “the preacher is still outside.” She came out apologizing, quickly processed the check and said she would inform the personnel at the detention center that the bail was paid and my party should be prepared for release.

The ICE detention center is located in Farmville, VA, an hour and a half drive through rural Virginia. I arrived around 2:00, went through security and was told I could either wait inside or outside where the release would take place. It was about 35 degrees outside so I decided to wait inside. A young lawyer and her assistant from Raleigh were also waiting for a release as well as a mother and daughter from Northern Virginia. We waited and waited and waited. Around 7:30 we were told to go outside; the detainees would be released momentarily. We walked around the parking lot and warmed up in our cars. And waited. Around 8:00, someone shouted, “Here they come.” I really didn’t know what my man looked like. I just shouted out, “Florentino, Florentino!”

Florentino appeared, dressed as he had the night he was stopped by the police and asked for his driver’s license. He wore the same multi-colored shirt bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, sleeves rolled up, open down to the third button – party style; not quite the appropriate apparel for 35 degree weather. He refused the offer of my coat.

We headed back to Richmond. We talked. “We were about 100 to 150 in a dormitory” said Florentino. “There were four dormitories. Each had his own cubicle that no one else should enter. We had three meals a day but meat – chicken - only twice a week. Most of the day we spent in the gym. All commands were shouted in English. Some got in trouble for not understanding; a few were punished, but overall, it wasn’t really that bad.”

We stopped for some pizza and coffee, and then headed home. Florentino shares a trailer in one of the notorious trailer parks that line US 1. He thanked me profusely and asked how he could repay me. “Let me see you at Mass next Sunday.” I pulled into our parking lot at ten; eleven hours since I headed to the ICE office.

It was certainly a frustrating day but an insightful one. It was a glimpse into what thousands of undocumented people experience all over the country day after day after day. But it was also an experience of the systemic issues that cause such frustration. The people who work for ICE are not bad people. They, like everyone else, are just trying to earn their “daily bread” and support their families.

If these immigrants labeled “undocumented” are residing for years in Virginia, work, pay taxes, have no criminal records, shop, send their children to school, attend local churches and are law abiding, why can’t they get a permit to drive? It could be stamped “not for Federal purposes or voting”. This simple act would prevent so many from being hauled in and eliminate the first step of this long, costly process. Eleven other states provide this kind of identification and find that millions of new dollars are flowing into their Treasury.

Why can’t a public rest room be installed in the ICE facility? Why are detention centers located at such a distance from large population centers, making visits a difficult or impossible venture?

Certainly there is need of immigration reform at both the Federal and State levels. Spending a day as I did, impresses the urgency of such reform.

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