Frozen by ICE: Detention centers hold thousands of legal immigrants

Ricardo Lopez and his mother Ana Daysi Guerra De Lopez in their Burien apartment. (Photo by Agatha Pacheco)
Ricardo Lopez and his mother Ana Daysi Guerra De Lopez in their Burien apartment. (Photo by Agatha Pacheco)

Since his arrival to the United States in May of 2015, Ricardo Lopez has been navigating a broken immigration system.

Those frustrations turned into a nightmare last summer when he spent two months at the Northwest Detention Center, a privately run detention facility in Tacoma.

Like most new immigrants, Ricardo’s legal situation is complicated. But the path that led him to detention reinforces the reality that almost any immigrant can end up behind bars, no matter how hard they try to follow the rules.

Ricardo is originally from El Salvador, where he and his younger brother were raised by his aunt and grandmother.

His mother, Ana Daysi Guerra De Lopez, has been in the U.S. for 13 years. She and her husband came here, leaving their two sons behind, in hopes of building a better life for them.

“All my life I’ve been working to get them here and to provide for them, so they can go to school and have a better-quality life” she says.

Ricardo sits across the room, quietly fidgeting with his thumbs and looking at the floor, listening intently to his mother while she begins to tell their story.

She says she recalls being in El Salvador and not having enough money to even buy her children a treat from the store, feeling like she just couldn’t give them what they deserved.

“Thank God we got to this country, to the American dream, although even for that we had to sacrifice our most beloved,” she says.

Her story is a common one among undocumented immigrants. Regardless of the details, the motivations and the struggle are often the same. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 there was an estimated 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.

The Lopez brothers made their own journey to the U.S. after Salvadorian street gangs threatened to take them from their house and kill them if they didn’t join.

El Salvador has the highest homicide rate of any country and San Salvador was recently deemed the murder capital of the world.

The two brothers travelled from El Salvador to the Mexican-American border where immigration authorities got in contact with their mother. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Ana that before they could release them to her, she and her husband would have to find a new apartment where the boys had their own room.

Ana quickly found a bigger apartment, and a lawyer. Because the two brothers had been threatened in El Salvador they qualified for asylum in the U.S. They began the process immediately.

Ricardo, at right, looks at something on his phone while his brother watches alongside him. (Photo by Agatha Pacheco)
Ricardo, at right, looks at something on his phone while his brother watches alongside him. (Photo by Agatha Pacheco)

In July, soon after they moved, the family filed their change of address with the Post Office and with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

They waited for USCIS to send information on Ricardo’s asylum hearing date in the mail. Instead, later that month they got an order calling Ricardo to be removed from the country.He had already missed his court date. They would have to reopen his case in 90 days or else he would be deported.

Ana and her husband went to their old apartment and asked their former landlord to check their old mailbox, inside was the letter containing Ricardo’s court date.

She says their lawyer at the time assured them he would file the papers to reopen the case and that everything would be fine.

But, as Ana later found out, the case was never reopened.

Their family’s reunion was short lived. Last spring — nineteen days after his 18th birthday — Ricardo experienced many immigrants’ worst nightmare.

On the morning of May 26, 2016, Lopez’s father was about to drive his sons to their bus stop when he noticed four cars surrounding their small apartment building.

“It was immigration, here to take him away,” Ana said, “they took him like a criminal.”

“Its unacceptable how ICE functions in this country. It’s inhumane.”

The lawyer assured the family he would be out by 1 p.m. that day, but Ana says it went from 1 p.m., to the next day, until it turned to weeks and then months.

Ana said she does not know why the lawyer never reopened the case, despite having all the paperwork finished and ready to submit. They found a new lawyer.

But in the meantime, what should have been a small inconvenience turned into two months of prison-like conditions for Ricardo.

From those two months, Ricardo recalls boiling hot showers that left his skin red, meals that were the same everyday with meat that resembled badly cooked tofu. The mere mention of the bathrooms triggers a look of disgust.

“Its unacceptable how ICE functions in this country. It’s inhumane.” said Salvador Lopez Escobar, Ricardo’s father.

Escobar says he also noticed the original date on Ricardo’s arrest warrant was crossed off and changed to a later date. The arrest warrant was originally dated February 17, at which point Ricardo would have still been 17. The date was changed to March 25, a date after Ricardo’s eighteenth birthday.

The family figures ICE waited just long enough for Ricardo to turn eighteen to be able to detain him.

The 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement essentially prohibits detention centers from detaining children. In September 2015 the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that detention centers across the country were subjecting detainees to inadequate treatment based on federal standards. Their report concluded that “DHS is not complying with the Flores Settlement Agreement Standards, including but not limited to, treatment and interactions with both unaccompanied children and those detained with family.”

But the report also complained that, because privately-run detention centers like the one in Tacoma are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the commission was unable to find whether detention centers were complying with certain standards and policies.

“Sometimes I still think about my experience there, and I wouldn’t like any other person to go through that, because it’s ugly,”

After the Department of Justice moved to end its use of private prisons last summer, the Department of Homeland Security initiated a review of its own private detention contractors. The resulting report — released just after the election — called for greater oversight, but ultimately concluded that continued use of private detention centers was all but inevitable. Both civil rights groups, and even the majority of the Homeland Security Advisory Council itself, expressed their disappointment with those findings.

Based on his personal experience in Tacoma, Ricardo clearly agrees.

“Sometimes I still think about my experience there, and I wouldn’t like any other person to go through that, because it’s ugly,” he said.

He doesn’t make eye contact or say much more, so I stop pressing him to tell me more.

Ricardo prefers to talk about his favorite game on Playstation 4, Overwatch. The blanket on his bed sports a stormtrooper and his gaming chair would make most teens jealous. His hobbies and interests are similar to those of any average American boy his age.

Ricardo’s father reasons that anyone going to prison is going to have a hard time coping with the experience.

“There are moments when I see him shut down, and I try to motivate him and talk to him about it but it just too much for him,” said Salvador.

Although Ricardo’s case was reopened by their new lawyer, his family still had to pay $7,500 to bail him out.

Ricardo recently received his work permit, and is awaiting his court date. His new lawyer is confident he’ll be granted asylum and allowed to stay.

Based on a snapshot of people who left ICE custody in one month in 2012, close to three quarters were deported or otherwise left the country — but nearly a quarter were released, either on bond like Ricardo, under some sort of alternative supervision program, or because they won their case outright. In Washington state, the number who stayed was even higher — 37 percent.

That means that each year tens of thousands of people like Ricardo are spending time behind bars when they’ve done nothing wrong other than being an immigrant caught up in a complex and often dysfunctional system.

Perversely, people legally entitled to stay in the U.S. tend to spend the longest time in detention, typically because they remain locked up while fighting complicated cases.

With the recent elections, some immigrants worry the system will only become more convoluted. Or perhaps it will become simpler, but even less forgiving.


  1. This should be a source of shame for every American. But the Orange One will make things worse citing the braying herd he whipped into an anti-immigrant frenzy. All of whom are immigrants if they’d think about it.

    Tacoma’s concentration camp is a disgrace. The people who run it should be ashamed, the people who work there should quit. I’d rather starve than run a gulag.

  2. WOW! It is just disgusting, how ICE planned it out at his 18th birthday to be detained. I have a feeling that this will becomes the next wave of mass incarceration and control of immigrants in this country.

  3. I am helping an employee with his fight to stay in the country. He has been in ICE detention going on 21 months. There appears to be no oversight for how these centers operate nor any oversight in how judges make their decisions. We have already won one BIA appeal and we are now starting our second. The sad part is that we expect that appeal to take another six to twelve months. The government’s strategy seems to be to place people in terrible conditions, treat them unfairly and prolong each step of the process as much as possible in hopes that people give up and ask to be deported voluntarily. I’m embarrassed that our country has a system like this. Truth, Justice and the American Way – turns out that the American Way for immigration detention has nothing to do with truth or justice whatsoever. Those who we, as a society, have entrusted to run this system should be ashamed of themselves. The ‘for profit’ nature of our system has created a corrupt environment from which there is very little hope of rescue for most who are caught up in it. I feel sorry for anyone that has to go through this process.

    1. Employee Released!

      After over 2 years of detention we have finally won the BIA appeal to have him released. In true ICE fashion he worked a full day on his detail and then processed out – pushed out the door with $9 in his pocket and no way to contact anyone. Some of his belongings, including his $500 phone, are just ‘missing’. The center was 12 miles from the nearest inhabited spot so he walked until two good samaritans picked him up and gave him a sandwich and a ride. Just one final kick in the pants from the good people at ICE. What a disgrace to our society that people like this are in charge of anything or anyone. They should all be ashamed of themselves. I’d rather starve than make money from the suffering of others.

      I’m not saying my employee is not without fault for his situation but he tried to do the RIGHT thing by addressing the issues. Unfortunately it cost him 2+ years behind bars. We had to go to the BIA on two different appeals to win his release. He was reunited with a tearful but happy family last night. The fight was worth every phone call, letter, visit, lawyer appointment and sleepless night. The good guys finally got a win last night.

      I’m forever grateful to the three BIA justices who saw right through the IJ’s completely wrong decision. It’s just unfortunate the IJ couldn’t do us all a favor and have made a properly considered decision the first time. I plan on filing a formal complaint against this judge to the EOIC in hopes that someone will sit him down and explain to him what he did wrong. I’m thankful for the victory but also aware of my responsibility to try to make this process easier for others by bringing attention to the grossly negligent individuals in the system. I know only 1% of complaints ever get action but I will be tilting at this windmill in the hopes that others can benefit from this awful situation.

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