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The Immigration Detention Grievance System: An Illusion of Justice

Jun 26, 2023
Sarah Hopkins

Documenting Inhumanity

On the morning of March 7, 2023, people detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, Calif., awoke to a scene of chaos. Officers from GEO Group, the private prison corporation that owns and operates the immigration detention facility under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), were raiding their dorm, wielding batons and pepper spray.

Officers from an ICE special response unit entered behind them, demanding that everyone detained in the dorm get on the floor. As the officers streamed in, one person was able to quickly reach an immigration attorney on a video call through a detention center tablet. The attorney witnessed the officers’ arrival on video until the stream suddenly paused; it appeared an officer had grabbed the tablet and thrown it to the ground.

But the audio continued. She heard officers handcuffing someone as he cried out in pain. “You’re hurting my hand! Why are you doing this? I’m not resisting. My arm!” she heard him scream.

Other people in the detention center frantically tried to reach their families and attorneys, but staff cut the phone lines.

Lines of communication would remain shut down for the following six hours, during which officers slammed people to the floor, kicked one man until he fainted, and transferred four people to an ICE facility in El Paso, Texas, under the pretext of providing “medical care.”

This was one of many attempts to break a peaceful hunger strike that approximately 82 people at Mesa Verde and another ICE detention facility, Golden State Annex, had begun on Feb. 17, 2023, to protest inhumane living conditions. Strikers demanded the immediate release of all people detained at the facilities and the shutdown of both detention centers.

In the days, weeks, and months leading up to the hunger strike, people detained at both facilities filed formal complaints, also known as grievances, documenting unsanitary living conditions, spoiled food, contaminated water, medical negligence, sleep deprivation, and staff misconduct, among other degradations to the conditions of their civil detainment.

According to ICE regulations, the grievance system is meant to provide a procedure by which people can ask for a response from detention center staff “relating to any aspect of their detention, including medical care.” But people detained in California ICE detention centers have long decried the futility of filing grievances, reporting that it does not render justice or constitutional living conditions. So, they have escalated their protests against the indignity of immigration detention through other peaceful, legal means, including labor and hunger strikes.

But instead of providing people a legitimate route to contest the conditions of their detainment, the grievance process creates an illusion of justice within facilities marred by systemic neglect, abuse, impunity, and limited oversight. People have been punished simply for participating in it. And very often, people in detention report that their grievances receive a response of “unfounded” (essentially a rejection) from the evaluating body: most often facility officials, who serve as both judge and defendant in the grievances filed against them.

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An Illusion of Justice

According to an analysis of 249 grievances provided to us by people detained in detention centers across California and uploaded to our interactive database, detention facility staff marked the majority of those grievances as “unfounded” across all three levels of review.

One person (anonymized to protect his privacy) who is currently detained at the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, Calif., said he was held in a solitary confinement cell soon after arriving at the civil detention facility, where he remained for 10 months. He filed a grievance requesting a housing change, which he says set off a chain reaction of harassment from facility officers. He recalled that an officer cursed at him and said, “You can file a grievance and request to ICE all you want, but you’re not gonna win.” He says staff have continuously attempted to dissuade him from filing grievances.

“I remember one time [an officer] told me I’m the second most hated person [in detention], and that I was starting to become the most hated, and this is because of the grievances. They refer to us as snitches, the staff,” he said.

Over his two years in ICE custody, he has submitted dozens of grievances—not because he believes he will receive a fair response, but to document the cruelty of immigration detention. “If you bring up something [in a grievance] they will find a way to go around it,” he said. “Even if you’re right, they’re not going to admit it because they’re ultimately trying to protect the facility. It’s rare for anyone to have a founded grievance.”

Ligaya Jensen, a mother to two U.S. citizen sons, is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against GEO Group for its reckless use of toxic chemicals at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino County. Ligaya has been detained there for five years. During that time, she has developed serious medical conditions including potentially cancerous tumors. She has repeatedly turned to the grievance process to seek redress for conditions of confinement issues, but she holds no faith that it serves to bring permanent or meaningful solutions for people in detention.

“The grievance process is a way to put the detention facility on alert that there are issues that exist that need a solution,” she said. But it “mostly works in their favor… Nothing affects them,” she said, referring to detention facility officials. “We are money to them. Without us there is no money. We are profit to them because they entered the business of detaining people.”

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The Business of Immigration Detention

California holds the third-largest immigration detention population in the country. All six ICE detention facilities in the state are run by private, for-profit prison companies, making them prone to a lack of accountability or scrutiny from the outside world. This has been a windfall for private corporations like GEO Group and CoreCivic, which execute sweetheart deals requiring the federal government to pay them hundreds of millions of dollars per year to warehouse people in their facilities. It is a system that incentivizes incarceration, breeds impunity, and causes needless suffering.

After years of advocating for the shutdown of ICE facilities across the state, and after the brutal suppression of this year’s mass hunger strike at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, we wanted to find a public means of exposing the ongoing harms of immigration detention in California, and to offset ICE’s lack of transparency about its oversight of California immigration facilities.

On June 23, 2023, ACLU NorCal sued ICE for failing to respond to our Freedom of Information Act Requests and withholding information on grievances filed at California immigration detention facilities. And today, we launched the California Immigration Detention Database, a new tool to track grievances that immigrants detained in California detention facilities have filed to seek resolutions to conditions of confinement issues.

Through data captured in a publicly available, interactive chart, this database aims to document patterns of abuse in detention, to act as a spotlight on staff responses to grievances (or lack thereof), and to serve as an advocacy tool for the closure of ICE detention facilities.

The database currently captures information from over 200 grievances filed since January 2023 that were provided to the ACLU by people currently or formerly detained in California. One of them is Jose Ruben Hernandez Gomez, who was among the many people who participated in the hunger strike at Mesa Verde, and one of the four people whom ICE cruelly transferred to El Paso.

“I’m participating in this project because I want people to know that detention centers are not safe to house human beings,” he said. “When people try to be heard by staff through their grievances, people are ignored. These facilities are not safe, and staff are not held responsible for misconduct.”

Jose Ruben was recently released to his family in California. “The worst experience [of detention] was being apart from my family, and the fear of being deported,” he said. “I am enjoying every moment of being with my family: studying the Bible with my mother, being around my nephews, and enjoying the simple fact that I am free.”

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