A chance for NM to light the way out of suffering, abuse

Dignity Not Detention Act would phase out immigration detention in New Mexico

February 17, 2023 4:00 am

The Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral. (Photo by Santana Ochoa / Source NM)

In 2019, a young nurse came to the United States from El Salvador. Her name was Joana Medina León but she was known as Joa. She came seeking asylum at the U.S. border. Joa was trans and because her gender assigned at birth was male, she was detained by ICE in an all male unit in Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico.

At the time, the law firm I worked with had a huge percentage of clients that were trans women detained by ICE in the United States. But I never met Joa. I know she had passed through a shelter that colleagues of mine ran in Juarez and I had heard, perhaps too late, that she was being held in Chaparral.

The closest contact I ever had with her is a piece of paper someone passed to me later that summer, a handwritten request for help from a staff member while she was in custody dated April 16, 2019. Joa’s plea is in pencil, carefully written in Spanish. She was concerned for her health and safety. 

Forty-five days later she would die in a hospital in El Paso.

According to reports, Joa was very sick in custody. 

She requested release from detention. She requested specific medical care she knew she needed because she was a nurse.

Her poor health was reported to the facility by other people in her pod as early as May 10. It was not until May 28 that she was transferred to the hospital. There, on her deathbed, ICE finally agreed to parole her from custody. 

When Joa died three days later, it was not counted as a facility death.

I have worked inside ICE detention facilities in New Mexico since 2014 and this type of medical neglect is no secret, it’s the norm. 

Community groups and legal service organizations are meticulously documenting abuse at Otero since it opened as an immigration detention center in 2007. Similarly, conditions are tracked at Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan and Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia.

In 2022, at Torrance County Detention Facility, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General issued a management alert, the first of its kind, saying conditions were so bad inside the detention center that people needed to be evacuated immediately. 

That report included pictures of filthy bathrooms, mold, people drinking out of shower taps. Yet the Torrance facility remains open. In fact, the immigrant population of Torrance recently jumped from around a dozen people to over 400. 

The indifference to human life is staggering.

Perhaps most disturbing about the abuse and neglect at New Mexico’s immigration detention facilities is that it happens at the hands of private prison contractors. The Management and Training Corporation, based in Centerville, Utah, operates the Otero County facility; and Core Civic, a corporation based in Nashville, operates the facilities in Torrance and Cibola counties. 

These corporations follow a profit-making playbook. They win the government contract by promising affordable services and then, since corporations need to profit, cut costs any way they can in delivery. These facilities are understaffed and under-resourced. 

In fact, much of the work is done by detainees who the corporations pay slave wages for their work. 

The result? Three facilities that are dangerous to human life in New Mexico.

The profit made by the CEOs and shareholders of these companies is galling. Ostensibly these arrangements are supposed to create positive economic development for New Mexicans but there isn’t a ton of evidence that is happening. We do know that CoreCivic reported $1.89 billion in revenue this year.

Yes, detention centers do create jobs for people in rural communities. But they aren’t necessarily good jobs. They can be dangerous and cruel. And people don’t seem to want them. These facilities are chronically understaffed. We owe it to people living in rural counties to create meaningful jobs that build thriving economies which are not based upon the presence of an out-of-state corporation and the incarceration of innocent people.

Our legislature has an opportunity this year to fight back against these corporations that come to our state to profit off of the abuse and neglect of humans. 

Senate Bill 172, known as the Dignity Not Detention Act, will prevent counties from forming Intergovernmental Service Agreements with ICE and private prison corporations. If passed, it would phase out immigration detention in Cibola, Otero and Torrance counties, effectively ending it statewide.

After nine years of working as a lawyer in New Mexico’s detention centers, I do not have any faith that private companies, Core Civic and the Management and Training Company, can safely care for the health of any person detained in their New Mexico facilities.

I have seen too much abuse, sadness and death.

Ending detention in New Mexico is not going to solve our nation’s problems at the U.S. border. Nor will it solve the political gridlock that prevents Congress from meaningfully addressing our country’s immigration system. As New Mexicans, there is very little we can do at the state level to affect those things. 

But we do get a say on how people are treated in our state.

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Allegra Love
Allegra Love

Allegra Love is an immigration attorney from Santa Fe. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is the founder of and former director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal services organization serving immigrants and refugees. She also worked at the El Paso Immigration Collaborative to represent detained asylum seekers in the Southwest.