A group of men—including some who participated in the so-called migrant caravan—issued a statement Thursday morning listing the “abuses and mistreatment” they claim they’re facing at the immigrant detention center where they’re currently being held.
The letter makes serious allegations about labor and safety conditions inside the Otay Mesa Detention Center, near San Diego. Otay Mesa is run by CoreCivic, the country’s biggest operator of private prisons.
“They force us to work for 6 hours for a payment of $1.50,” reads the letter, which is signed by 37 detainees.
The letter was translated from Spanish into English and sent to Splinter by Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the organization that organized the migrant caravan.
Among other complaints, it alleges that, though detainees are nominally allowed to decline work, in practice, things are much different:
We continue declaring that when they offer us voluntary work in CCA, we accept it due to the fact that our economic situation is precarious because we came fleeing from our country and CCA sees our situation and exploits us in the following way:
- They force us to work for 6 hours for a payment of $1.50
- They threaten to report us to judges when we don’t want to work
- They threaten with marking us up to damage our cases
Otay Mesa is already facing a class-action lawsuit that alleges that immigrants “are paid at most $1.50 per day, and sometimes not paid at all, for their work as kitchen staff, janitors, barbers and various other roles,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The detainees in the letter claim they have reported concerns about “dirty razors” and medical concerns that have gone unanswered.
The letter also expresses outrage about the death of Roxana Hernández, a transgender asylum seeker who was also part of the migrant caravan:
When she entered the San Ysidro Detention Center, she immediately reported that she was HIV positive, but the officers didn’t pay her any attention and denied her the necessary medical attention. There is bad food, lights on, cold, due to the air conditioning used in that detention center as its name indicates (icebox) and we all know that these illnesses are very problematic if you don’t have appropriate care because it’s an acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
(Immigration officials have declined to offer any specific rebuttals to the reports about Hernandez, but have said that they are “committed to safety and security, including meeting the health and safety needs of those persons in our custody.”)
Edgar Reyes, a 19-year-old detainee from Honduras, signed the letter and has taken on a role as one of several unofficial spokesmen for the group of detainees. He made his way through Mexico with the caravan. He said he was fleeing gang threats and that he could not go to the police for help because of his political affiliations.
Reyes said that he has not committed any crime. (U.S. law permits foreigners to request asylum at ports of entry.) But he said he was being treated like a criminal nonetheless. Otay Mesa is a common place for asylum seekers to be detained while their cases are being processed, and Reyes said members of the migrant caravan are being detained alongside people who have been convicted of drug and domestic abuse offenses.
He said he feels he has no choice but to work, in part so that he can afford to make calls to his family in Honduras. “I want to keep in touch with my family, so they don’t worry about me,” Reyes said.
He said he works seven days a week and receives payment of “about $2 for a week’s pay” — which would be far lower than even the letter alleges.
“This is labor exploitation. This is unjust. We report it but we are not listened to,” Reyes said.
CoreCivic directed inquiries about the letter to officials at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
ICE spokesperson Lauren Mack told Splinter she could not immediately address the complaints brought by Reyes but she said officers would look into them and “resolve any issues.”
More broadly, she said that “ICE is committed to ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of all those in our care.”
Mack said ICE detainees receive a copy of the “detainee handbook” at entry and “are encouraged at the outset to report allegations involving mistreatment or abuse immediately.”
She went on to say that “officers assigned to the compliance unit at the Otay Mesa Detention Center review all detainee complaints filed at the center.”
When asked why he was speaking publicly, Reyes said, “I’m brave because I know I’m speaking the truth, I’m not fearful.”
The letter Reyes said he signed on to is published in its entirety below.