Lost in DetentionView film
Rick Young, Margaret Ebrahim, Catherine Rentz
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: As a candidate, he promised to fix the immigration system.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Candidate: The system just isn't working and we need to change it!
ANNOUNCER: As president, Obama cracked down hard.
PROTESTER: What did he give us? A million people been deported.
ANNOUNCER: FRONTLINE, the Investigative Reporting Workshop and correspondent Maria Hinojosa investigate Obama's tough immigration enforcement.
MARIA HINOJOSA, Correspondent: Hasn't the president ended up enacting the Republican agenda?
CECILIA MUNOZ, White House Dir. of Intergov. Affairs: What the president is doing is enforcing the law of the land.
ANNOUNCER: Examining his promise to deport hardened criminals.
KUMAR KIBBLE, Deputy Director, ICE: One thousand murderers, six thousand sex offenders, forty-five thousand serious drug violators.
ANNOUNCER: While critics say the program has swept up thousands of immigrants with no criminal record.
JERRY STERMER, Sr. Adviser, IL Gov. Pat Quinn: A mother who had a broken taillight being separated, maybe forever, from her children?
ANTONIO ARCEO: [through interpreter] They don't understand how their mother could have been thrown out of the country.
ANNOUNCER: And investigative conditions in the vast network of immigrant detention centers.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN, Fmr. Willacy Mental Health Coordinator: Women harassed for sexual favors, guards taking detainees and beating them, running them down like they were animals.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, how the politics of immigration are Lost in Detention.
MARIA HINOJOSA, CORRESPONDENT: [voice-over] These are the front lines of a new immigration crackdown in America, federal officers from ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — on their way to arrest some of the millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
OFFICER: First target, guys, you've got conviction of hit and run. Also, you've got DUIs. He's a final order. He goes to work between 6:30, 7:00 o'clock. Any questions?
MARIA HINOJOSA: These so-called "fugitive operations" are part of an immigration enforcement offensive that has reached historic levels under the Obama administration.
OFFICER: The team's been doing surveillance on this house for the last few days.
OFFICER: Target's house is right here, right here on that right side.
MARIA HINOJOSA: This year, about 400,000 undocumented immigrants will be detained and deported, totaling more than one million since Obama took office.
KUMAR KIBBLE, Deputy Director, ICE: We have a job to do. We enforce immigration law and we seek to remove people that are here illegally from the country. In terms of protecting the public and also in terms of border security, we are— we're setting records with our enforcement results.
ROBERTO SURO, Prof. of Public Policy, USC: In terms of apprehending people, putting them in a detention system and then removing them from the country, the scale has gone way up. Under Obama, numbers are significantly higher than they were under Bush So Obama has juiced up the Bush policies.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Earlier this year, the president came to the border in El Paso—
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We now have more boots on the ground—
MARIA HINOJOSA: —to defend his tough enforcement policies—
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: And we are deporting those who are here illegally.
MARIA HINOJOSA: While at the same time, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Now we need to come together around reform that reflects our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants;
GARY SEGURA, Political Scientist, Stanford Univ.: The administration has believed since it was sworn in that in order to make the political ground fertile for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, that enforcement had to come first. But Here's no chance of comprehensive immigration reform in the current political environment. There's just— there's no support on the Republican side.
ROBERTO SURO: Washington has been unable to enact new immigration legislation for, like, 20 years. It's in this vacuum that enforcement all of a sudden has become this kind of talisman, that you have to prove the government is in control.
GARY SEGURA: In the absence of reform, we're left with, essentially, enforcement on steroids, but that's all we're left with. That is our immigration policy.
MARIA HINOJOSA: This is the story of how that policy is playing out often far from the border, in places like Maple Park in the president's home state of Illinois. Antonio Arceo and his wife moved to Maple Park from California five years ago to raise their five children and live near family.
Then, last February, Antonio told me, he received a call that changed everything.
ANTONIO ARCEO: [through interpreter] I was working, and about 4:00 o'clock I received a call from my wife's own cell phone, but a man was speaking. He asked, in English, if I knew Roxana Garcia, who's my wife. I said yes. He said, "It's the police, Kane County Sheriff. Your wife has been detained for not carrying a license. Can you come pick up your kid?"
MARIA HINOJOSA: Roxana had been stopped for speeding and was held overnight in the county jail.
ANTONIO ARCEO: [through interpreter] Next morning, when I went back, she was no longer there. I asked the lady there, "How come? They told me she was getting out the next day." She said, "No, Immigration came this morning and took her away."
MARIA HINOJOSA: Antonio had no idea what the government had done with his wife. He spent days looking for her.
ANTONIO ARCEO: [through interpreter] I went around to all the jails where she could possibly have been held, and nobody would give me information. So at that point, I was desperate because we didn't know what had happened.
MARIA HINOJOSA: What he didn't know is that Roxana had been taken six hours away to southern Illinois, swept up by the administration's widening net of enforcement. Roxana was being held in detention.
At the center of this story is a federal program called "Secure Communities," in which ICE has extended its reach by enlisting the help of local law enforcement to better identify illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.
The sheriff's department here in Lake County, Illinois, north of Chicago, joined Secure Communities in 2010. The sheriff is Mark Curran.
MARK CURRAN, Sheriff, Lake County, IL: I think in law enforcement, especially since 9/11, it has been impressed upon us that you need to work as a team. When you have local, state and federal law enforcement all sharing information, all working together, all contributing to each other's task forces, that's when we work best.
MARIA HINOJOSA: An elected Republican and former prosecutor, Curran says he came to realize that about 20 percent of those locked up in his jail were undocumented immigrants. He decided the government wasn't being tough enough.
Sheriff MARK CURRAN: As a result I thought, you know, let's close down these borders and let's start deporting these people as fast as we can. Let's— let's return the rule of law to its place.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Secure Communities seemed like the right tool.
MICHAEL ROZOS, Fmr. Field Office Director, ICE: The goal is to identify people, aliens, who are removable from the United States based on their criminal background while they're still within the premise of the criminal justice system, not giving the opportunity to be released on the street and commit other crimes. This system is designed where a person can be arrested, booked into a jail or a prison, and just by the submission of those fingerprints, instantly sent off. Not only would all of the criminal justice systems be checked, the immigration data bases would also be checked at the same time. So within seconds, literally seconds, you would have the immigration vetting almost complete by identifying that person.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] Do we know why he was arrested?
OFFICER: It appears that he got charged with leaving a scene of an accident that resulted in injury and or death. It is a felony.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] The Obama administration says Secure Communities is essential to taking the worst criminals off the streets and removing them from the country.
KUMAR KIBBLE: We have record-breaking numbers in terms of criminal alien removals— 195,000 last year, about half of the people we removed. That included 1,000 murderers, 6,000 sex offenders, 45,000 serious drug violators. As we expand the deployment of Secure Communities, focus on criminal aliens, you'll see that number continue to go up and up.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But critics say Secure Communities is sweeping up more than just serious criminals. And in Illinois, one case in particular got a lot of attention. It started about 75 miles west of Chicago, in McHenry County, when local police made a routine traffic stop in March of 2010. The driver had changed lanes without signaling.
SUSANA RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] All of a sudden, I saw the lights on the police car turn on. That's when the policemen stopped me. I didn't even know why until later on. He asked me for my driver's license and car insurance. I didn't have a license. He said I was going to be arrested, to call someone to pick up my truck and little girl. He simply put me in the car and took me to jail.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] What did you understand that you were being arrested for?
SUSANA RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] Because I didn't have a license.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] When Susana Ramirez was booked into custody, her fingerprints were sent to ICE under the Secure Communities program. ICE quickly put a hold on her. She was in the country illegally
[on camera] Have you ever been arrested before? Do you have a criminal record?
SUSANA RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] No, that was the only time. Not even in Mexico. This is the first time this has ever happened to me.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] A single mom with two daughters, both American citizens, Ramirez says she fled the violence of Mexico's drug wars after being threatened with kidnapping in her hometown of Durango. She came to the U.S. legally in 2007 and found work in Illinois cleaning houses. Then she overstayed her visa and says she was afraid to return home.
SUSANA RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] For me, the place I wanted to be was Mexico. But I had to emigrate because of the circumstances.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] For fear.
SUSANA RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] Because of fear. Exactly.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] The sympathetic story of a mother facing deportation was picked up by immigration activists and politicians.
SUSANA RAMIREZ: [through interpreter] My name is Susana Ramirez, and I am a person who was detained in April—
MARIA HINOJOSA: A state bill, known as "Susana's law," was introduced to deny funding for Secure Communities.
Rep. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), Illinois: The federal government should stop deporting the parents of American citizen children, who have never— like this wonderful woman, who have never committed any serious violation of the law.
JERRY STERMER, Sr. Adviser, IL Gov. Pat Quinn: Leaders in the immigrant community came to the governor and met with us on the staff and said, "The participation in Secure Communities is driving a wedge between our— our neighbors, our families and our local law enforcement."
MARIA HINOJOSA: Jerry Stermer is top adviser to the Democratic governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, a close Obama ally. Stermer says the administration had sold Secure Communities to Illinois as a program targeting the worst of the worst.
JERRY STERMER: We were talking about murderers and rapists and arsonists and the most serious, and that was very clear. That's what we heard about and that's what we understood was going on.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But when the governor's office looked at ICE's own statistics and discovered that less than 20 percent of those deported from Illinois had been convicted of a serious crime, they concluded they'd been sold a bill of goods.
JERRY STERMER: We met on a number of occasions with the federal officials and said, "This isn't— this isn't going the way that you had described it and that we had understood. Can we fix this?" And they said, "Well, if we're looking for the most serious offenders and we want to deport them, there's going to be collateral damage."
And we thought, are we talking about collateral damage of a mother who had a broken taillight being separated maybe forever from her children? And we said to them, "Our interest is in zero collateral damage, not some collateral damage."
MARIA HINOJOSA: That collateral damage has been felt here in Lake County, Illinois. After 18 months of Secure Communities, Sheriff Mark Curran, once a supporter of the program, has had a surprising change of heart.
Sheriff MARK CURRAN: When I deal with the Latino community throughout Lake County, there's fear that's running through these communities. They know all about Secure Communities. They know the horror stories of their uncle or their brother that committed the most ticky-tack of offenses, got incarcerated as a result, and is now being deported.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But for supporters of Secure Communities, the program is doing exactly what it should be doing.
[on camera] So when you hear stories about unauthorized immigrants now living in a state of fear because they could be detained and put into a detention center, do you think this fear is a good thing?
MARK KRIKORIAN, Exec. Dir., Ctr. for Immigration Studies: Absolutely. I mean, it's supposed to be. It's like if you're speeding on the highway and you're afraid there might be a trooper around the corner, or if you want to claim a couple of extra deductions on your income tax form and you're worried about the IRS maybe paying attention.
You're supposed to be afraid. In fact, the reason we have 11 million illegal immigrants is because too many people for too long understood quite clearly that there wasn't anything to be afraid of.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] But Sheriff Curran says that fear is undermining the ability of law enforcement to do its job.
Sheriff MARK CURRAN: And when the squad car rounds the corner, you'll see people scram. It's not because they are engaged in criminal activity necessarily, it's because they have this perception that they're illegal or they know somebody that might be undocumented, and they don't want to have anything to do with law enforcement.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] And what does it do to you as a law enforcement officer?
Sheriff MARK CURRAN: Law enforcement works best when it's engaged with the community. To have the community not working with you— it's a frightening proposition.
[www.pbs.org: The Secure Communities controversy]
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] Although Curran is now an outspoken critic of Secure Communities, the Obama administration has made the program mandatory, and the Lake County sheriff's department is still helping to identify and hold undocumented immigrants for ICE.
OFFICER: One thing that I've experienced is in 2002, when I started, you did not get a lot of immigration detainers. Now it appears to me that Immigration is placing holds on almost everybody that was born outside of the United States.
MARIA HINOJOSA: This aggressive enforcement by ICE has been driven, according to insiders, by the agency's need to hit a target number of deportations, now 400,000 a year.
MICHAEL ROZOS, Fmr. Field Office Director, ICE: Because the number 400,000 was what was agreed upon, what's happened is you pick up whatever you can— so the low-hanging fruit, the high-hanging fruit and all the fruit that's in between. You would pick up whatever you could and take your collateral apprehensions, which would be the other illegals that may be present when you're arresting a fugitive, and bring them into custody, as well, to get the numbers moved up.
MARIA HINOJOSA: The pressure to move the numbers up was evident in an internal ICE memo last year. ICE was at risk of falling "well under the agency's goal of 400,000" deportations, the memo says. In particular, it highlighted the shortfall of "non-criminal" removals.
[on camera] So basically, Washington is setting some numbers, and on the ground, if you're not meeting those numbers, then you're being judged by not meeting those numbers.
MICHAEL ROZOS: You're being judged or you're being summoned to Washington. You know, you'll get this "Be in my office tomorrow morning" and so kind of a thing.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] While ICE tries to hit its numbers, the results show up in the Miami courtroom of immigration judge Denise Slavin.
DENISE SLAVIN, V.P., Natl. Assn., Immigration Judges: We're seeing more and more people who are just having some sort of contact with the law enforcement community, where the individuals who are being picked up were not the— not the target of the law enforcement operation at all. They were a witness to a crime, a victim of crime. It could happen because you had a flat tire on the side of the road and the state police stopped.
So I think that they're going after people that they're easy to— if they're handed to them, probably, is the best way to put it, that if the state police or local police run across someone who is unauthorized and call the Department of— ICE, they're not going to say, "No, we're not going to take that person." They're going to come and pick them up and put them in detention. That happens more now than it used to.
MARIA HINOJOSA: At the White House, President Obama's top adviser on immigration is Cecilia Munoz.
[on camera] Even the supporters of the president, the Illinois governor, have said Secure Communities is doing more damage, and in fact, there's collateral damage of mothers being separated from their children, of fathers being separated from their children.
CECILIA MUNOZ, White House Dir. of Intergov. Affairs: Right.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Is this collateral damage that this administration is prepared to accept?
CECILIA MUNOZ: Well, as a result of the concerns raised by the governor of Illinois, the governor of Massachusetts and others, DHS made adjustments on how it's implementing the policy. So the— the feedback from the community has been important in shaping DHS's work.
But at the end of the day, when you have a community of 10 million, 11 million people living and working in the United States illegally, some of these things are going to happen. Even if the law is executed with perfection, there will be parents separated from their children. They don't have to like it, but it is a result of having a broken system of laws. And the answer to that problem is reforming the law.
MARIA HINOJOSA: In Maple Park, Illinois, the Arceo family has been pulled apart. Last March, Antonio's wife, Roxana Garcia, who had been stopped for speeding, was deported back to Mexico. She had a previous record of crossing the border illegally. Left behind were her husband and her five American-born children.
[on camera] If your wife, before she was deported, was in charge of five kids, what happened after she was deported? How did you handle this?
ANTONIO ARCEO: [through interpreter] I didn't handle the situation. The situation definitely handled me.
[www.pbs.org: Watch on line]
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] Although he had help from friends and his church, Antonio had a tough time making ends meet. There were times when he had no one to pick up the kids at school. And so they stayed with him at his repair shop.
ANTONIO ARCEO: [through interpreter] They don't understand how their mother could have been thrown out of the country because of a simple piece of paper. They are American citizens that are going to be productive for this country one day. How can you take away the most important pillar in their life, their mother? I don't understand.
MARIA HINOJOSA: At times, Antonio, has his doubts about making it without Roxana, and considers moving his family back to Mexico.
[on camera] Would you want to go back to Mexico?
ISAAC ARCEO, Son: No, not really.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Have you ever been to Mexico?
ISAAC ARCEO: No.
MARIA HINOJOSA: So When your dad talks about maybe the solution is to go back to Mexico, what do you think about that, David?
DAVID ARCEO, Son: Well, just the thought of having to pack everything up and leaving my country to be somewhere I've never even been is just— it doesn't seem right to me.
ANGELA KELLEY, V.P., Center for American Progress: Forty-six percent of undocumented people live in a family, and the majority have been in the U.S. for longer than 11 years. So the face of the undocumented person isn't the young Mexican who's scaling the fence and able to get in, works for six months and then leaves. It's not a Mexican male anymore. It's women, it's kids it's people who put their roots down here, their lives down here.
MARIA HINOJOSA: There are now four and a half million U.S. citizen children living in families where one or both parents are undocumented.
ISAAC ARCEO: We had future plans, like going to college and stuff, especially for serving this country, like everyone does. But this happened.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] What were you dreams about what you wanted to do?
ISAAC ARCEO: I wanted to be a police officer when I grow up.
MARIA HINOJOSA: And now?
ISAAC ARCEO: I changed my mind.
DAVID ARCEO: I wanted to be a lawyer.
MARIA HINOJOSA: And now?
DAVID ARCEO: Now, I don't know. I'm not really concentrating on that right now.
Sheriff MARK CURRAN: We're talking about people that have been here for 20 years and that have five children that are U.S. citizens, and that they came here under this message that, "Don't worry about it. You can get into this country. Don't worry about it. You can work and nobody's ever going to ask about it." And now we're going to deport them.
To me, it's absolutely wrong. I mean, I could talk about it from a faith perspective, but people don't want to hear that, especially if they're not Roman Catholic. But the truth is there. When you take a father out of the house and you deport him or a mother out of the house and you deport her and you leave those children now without one of the two spouses, to me that's not a good recipe for the future of America. And it makes us a lesser country.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] At the heart of the get-tough immigration policy is a vast network of 250 detention centers, from county jails to large centers run by private prison companies, where immigrants facing deportation are held until they can be removed from the country. In the past decade, three million immigrants have been detained in the system.
This woman, a Canadian citizen, was one of them.
MARY: I went to Florida in l994, and when I went there, I liked it and I inquired about business.
MARIA HINOJOSA: She agreed to speak only if we disguised her identity. We'll call her Mary. Her detention began when local police in Florida pulled her over in a routine traffic stop.
MARY: So I show my license and my registration and whatever, and everything was fine. But then he came back and he said, "There's a warrant out for you." I said, "A warrant? Like, I didn't do anything. I don't have no outstanding tickets."
MARIA HINOJOSA: But the warrant said Mary had bounced a $230 check 10 years earlier.
MARY: I wrote a check to Wal-Mart, but then I moved down to Fort Lauderdale and I closed my account.
MARIA HINOJOSA: It was soon discovered that Mary had been living in the U.S. for 15 years without a visa. She was quickly detained by ICE and then sent a thousand miles away to the southern tip of Texas, to the Willacy Detention Center. When she first arrived, Mary was warned about Willacy by a fellow detainee.
MARY: She said, "It's terrible. It's really terrible. And you need to tell them you need to go back to Canada because you don't want to stay in someplace like this. This is not for you."
MARIA HINOJOSA: Willacy had been built quickly in 2006. Designed to hold up to 3000 detainees, it was run by a private prison contractor and was one of the largest detention centers in the country.
[www.pbs.org: The private prison boom]
MARK FLEMING, Atty., Natl. Immigrant Justice Center: What's stunning about it is the sheer size of it. It looks like an airfield, with these Kevlar white domed tents. And you walk in, and there's razor wire all around it. And in each one of them, they're holding 200 people with very limited space and movement, where they're basically warehoused in order to effectuate their removal.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Mark Fleming was part of a special human rights commission for the Organization of American States that inspected Willacy in 2009.
MARK FLEMING: ICE establishes these facilities mainly to make sure that they show up for their hearing, and if they're ordered removed, to effectuate that removal. It's not supposed to be punitive. And yet in every way, shape or form, it was punitive. It was a criminal setting. They wore uniforms as inmates. The officers had very much a criminal justice mentality.
And so it's palpable the desperation that detained immigrants feel at this facility because they're not well informed of when they're going to get out.
MARY: I begged and I begged every day, "What's going on? Please, I want to get out. Just get me out of here."
MARIA HINOJOSA: Mary wanted to fight her deportation, but she had a problem. Like the vast majority of detainees she had no attorney to help her. Unlike in the criminal justice system, immigration detainees don't have a guaranteed right to an attorney. Even if they have strong cases to remain in the U.S., most have to fend for themselves and be their own legal advocates.
ANTHONY ROMERO, Executive Director, ACLU: We hold people. We handcuff them. We detain them. We take away the basic right to liberty. And the right to due process, when the government takes away your basic right to liberty, should be equivalent to that in the criminal context. And that's unfortunately not the case.
MARK KRIKORIAN, Exec. Dir., Ctr. for Immigration Studies: Immigration matters are not criminal matters. Those are administrative matters. There's no punishment that the immigration service metes out. It is simply a question of whether you're supposed to be here or whether you're supposed to be there. That's an administrative matter. And the Supreme Court has said repeatedly for over a century that due process in immigration matters is whatever Congress says it is.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Without access to attorneys, critics say detainees are vulnerable in other ways. They're less likely to have legal protection in cases of physical and sexual abuse.
MARY: Oh, my God.
MARIA HINOJOSA: During her three months at Willacy, Mary says she endured repeated sexual assaults by a guard.
MARY: He kissed me and then I pushed him, and then he said "Well, I love big-breasted women." And then he took his hands and he, like, put them in my pants.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] He put his hands in your pants.
MARY: In my pants. And he said, "Well, do you like that? Does it feel good because you're locked up, so you don't know what it feels like." And I pushed him away and I said, "Please let me go!" [weeps]
MARIA HINOJOSA: And then what happened?
MARY: He said, "If you tell anyone, you wouldn't come out of here alive to see your family." So then, who do you go and tell?
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] Mary says she told a female guard about the attacks.
MARY: She said to me that if you go to ICE and you complain or you write a report, it's going to be worse for you because they don't want a bad name that these things are going on.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] Don't complain about the fact that you've been sexually assaulted because it could be worse for you if you complain?
MARIA HINOJOSA: They could retaliate against you?
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] Our investigation into Willacy found that Mary's treatment wasn't unique. We uncovered many stories of racial, physical and sexual abuse. When we visited Willacy, ICE would not let us talk with detainees we met along the way or interview the local ICE officials.
But we did speak with dozens of former detainees and staff.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN, Fmr. Willacy Mental Health Coordinator: I would take a count of how many detainees we saw.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Twana Cooks-Allen was the mental health coordinator at Willacy .
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: We would make referrals to our department to see—
MARIA HINOJOSA: She heard a lot of stories of abuse.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: Men of color were coming to me, talking about guards taking them in an area and beating them, talking to me about guards who are running them down like they were animals, and yelling and screaming and calling them names and talking about family members and getting in their face and spitting.
ANDRE OSBORNE, Former Willacy Detainee: This is the first place where I ever went to that it was all right for somebody to say, "You nigger monkey, you black nigger monkey," you know?
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] A guard to say that to you.
ANDRE OSBORNE: Yeah. And say it in front of a lot of other people, too. So you would start to think that, "Well, I guess that's all right down here for them to do that."
MARIA HINOJOSA: While you were detained at Willacy, did you witness any physical abuse by the guards on the detainees?
ANDRE OSBORNE: There was a lot of nights I hear screaming in the hallway. There were, like, sticks and stuff. And then I run to the door and look, and you would see them have somebody on the ground, beating them.
MARIA HINOJOSA: You saw this?
ANDRE OSBORNE: Yeah. More than once.
DONOVAN JONES, Former Willacy Detainee: The guards favorite thing was to say, "Let's take him down," using excessive force. Or they will tell you, "I'll take you down. I'll take you down" because I've seen them took off— put the radios down, took off their belts and get into fisticuffs with detainees.
MARIA HINOJOSA: And you get a call in the middle of the night one night.
[voice-over] This former guard says she saw a surveillance video of a vicious beating of a detainee.
SIGRID ADAMEIT, Former Willacy Guard: I basically saw a lieutenant, a sergeant and two officers beat up on a detainee, to me, it just looked half to death. He had been knocked off his front teeth, a busted nose. He had a black eye. He was bleeding everywhere.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] What was the reason for the altercation?
SIGRID ADAMEIT: From my understanding, he talked back.
MARIA HINOJOSA: He talked back?
SIGRID ADAMEIT: Yes.
MARIA HINOJOSA: So there wasn't an actual violent assault against the officers. It was a verbal response.
SIGRID ADAMEIT: Yes, ma'am.
MARIA HINOJOSA: And then four officers—
SIGRID ADAMEIT: Two supervisors and two officers.
MARIA HINOJOSA: —proceeded to beat him.
SIGRID ADAMEIT: Yes, ma'am.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] Adameit says she was shown the video and asked by officials to clean up the statements of the guards and make them consistent to hide evidence.
SIGRID ADAMEIT: It was just covered up. And next morning, he was shipped out— if I'm not mistaken, he was from Ecuador, so he was on the first plane out by J-POD.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Former detainee Donovan Jones acted as a jailhouse lawyer, helping others with their legal cases. He says he heard many stories of abuse, much of it targeting women.
DONOVAN JONES: There were a lot going on between the women and the guards. The guards will bring stuff from the outside, things that we could not— or the ladies could not access. And they will bring stuff in exchange for different favors, some of them sex.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN, Fmr. Willacy Mental Health Coordinator: I knew something was wrong when I started getting women coming in complaining about being harassed by guards for sexual favors. I had got to the point where I knew and felt comfortable with some of the guards, that I went to them and said "Look, just tell me, is this really going on out there? We keep getting these detainees complaining and saying this and that." And the sad thing was that many of the guards supported it, in the sense of saying, "They're right, yeah, it does happen.'
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] I mean, isn't it the case that there are always going to be some bad apples within the context of people who are guarding detainees, a couple of bad apples?
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: I think they had a whole lot of bad apples. I think they had some barrels of bad apples at Willacy.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Recently, this Willacy guard pled guilty to sexually assaulting a female detainee, admitting he pulled her into a bathroom forced her to have intercourse.
FRONTLINE's investigation into Willacy uncovered more than a dozen allegations of sexual abuse, including Mary, who says she couldn't take it anymore.
MARY: I said "I want to go back home. Please. I want to go back home. Get me out of here because if this goes on one more time with me and I don't get out of here, I'm going to kill myself."
MARIA HINOJOSA: Desperate to get out of Willacy, Mary asked to be deported back to Canada. She left behind four U.S. citizen children in the care of a relative. She says she's been unable to see them for more than two years.
MARY: How do you explain to 7, 8, 9-year-old kids that their mom can't come there? I can't take care of them. How do you tell little kids that? Do they understand? They don't understand!
MARIA HINOJOSA: A cache of government documents recently obtained by the ACLU reveals that claims of sexual abuse are widespread throughout the U.S. detention system. The documents detail more than a 170 allegations of sexual abuse during the past four years.
[www.pbs.org: Sex abuse in detention centers]
ANTHONY ROMERO, Exec. Director, ACLU: We're only scratching the surface of what we know is a much bigger phenomenon. We know that there are many more cases that don't get investigated, where people do not get held accountable for the abuse or the rape of immigrants, and especially when you're dealing with a vulnerable community, where they don't have access to lawyers, where they're in out-of-the-way places.
And so you're much less likely to have them step forward and say, "Wait, I was just raped. I was just abused sexually in a detention center." They just want to get on with it. "Let me out of here. Get me out of here. Get me out of this purgatory." And so they'll do anything to get out.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Despite all the problems we uncovered at Willacy, a 2009 audit gave the detention center a rating of "good." At the same time, the audit also said that 900 grievances had been filed by the detainees.
MARK FLEMING, Atty., Natl. Immigrant Justice Center: You look at the audit, and the audit is bare bones. It's hard to believe that you can have 900 grievances and no discussion as to what the substance of those grievances were. And so there's no transparency as far as once they do get a complaint like that, what happens.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] The Willacy detention facility actually got an audit in 2009 and it was rated acceptable. But in fact, there were more than 900 grievances filed that year. How do you put those two things together?
KUMAR KIBBLE, Deputy Director, ICE: Well, I don't know the specifics of what the grievances may be. I don't know if the— if the grievance— I don't know whether it has to do with the quality of the food or whatever. We put a lot of people through our facilities more broadly. This is a big system. There are always going to be people that are dissatisfied with one element of it or another.
But where it rises to— to a level, you know, that— that merits attention and merits a response and we're aware of it, we— we do all we can to address it.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] But that's not the response that Twana Cooks-Allen saw. In 2009, she was asked to survey all detainees at Willacy, part of a broad review of the detention system undertaken by ICE officials in Washington.
[on camera] And all of this information you're getting in writing.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: Yes.
MARIA HINOJOSA: You're documenting.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: We're documenting.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] But when she delivered initial findings of the survey, she says local ICE officials began a cover-up.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: ICE had questions about it.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] And ICE wanted to know what, as far as you understood?
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: They wanted to know who said what, period. Who said what, anything that had to do with anything negative.
MARIA HINOJOSA: And were they trying to fix the situation?
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: No. Not the information I got back from the detainees. I had a detainee who had saw me come down the hall and came in and knocked on my door, and he was upset. He was extremely upset because he said, "ICE came over yesterday, pulled me out of the dorm and basically told me if I complained about anything else again, they would make sure that I didn't stay here and that I was deported."
And in that day, I got bombarded with those first 38 people that I had interviewed, and the majority of them came in complaining or crying that they had been harassed by ICE.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] The survey was shut down, and soon after, Cooks-Allen resigned her position at Willacy.
TWANA COOKS-ALLEN: You have a decision to make, and your decision is either you stay there and continue and see the unethical behavior that's being played out there, or you choose to walk away.
MARIA HINOJOSA: This summer, the government made changes at Willacy. The facility was transferred from ICE to the Bureau of Prisons. It's still run by the private contractor, but it's now a prison for repeat offenders caught crossing the border illegally.
Meanwhile, ICE says it is making major reforms to the detention system and says they plan to build six new centers that will house detainees in less prison-like conditions.
KUMAR KIBBLE: We're trying to do the best we can to move the system in a way that treats our detainees in a respectful way. There are areas that we need to improve on. There are areas— places that we need to continue to work towards making them better. But we're committed to doing that. It's an ongoing process and it's something that we're going to continue.
MARIA HINOJOSA: but critics say the vast network of 250 detention centers, the fastest growing incarceration system in the country, will not be easy to reform.
ANTHONY ROMERO: It's clear that when you create a detention facility that's out of the public spotlight, that's in out-of-the-way places, where lawyers don't have access to individuals who are detained there, where you have very little public scrutiny, that are privately run by government contractors, that without that public scrutiny of what goes on behind those barbed wires and those closed doors, you have the potential for enormous violations of basic rights.
MARIA HINOJOSA: There are about 50 million Latinos living in the U.S. today, and Obama's tough enforcement policies have deeply angered many of them on a personal level.
Rep. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), Illinois: Somewhere in America today, there's a man missing his wife, there's a woman missing her husband, there's a destroyed family. And it doesn't have to be that way!
MARIA HINOJOSA: More than half of Latino voters know someone who's undocumented. More than a quarter know someone who's been detained or deported.
ROBERTO SURO, Prof. of Public Policy, USC: This enforcement policy and the deportations— largely invisible to most voters, I'd say. It appears in the English-language media every once in a while. It's on Spanish-language television all the time. All the time. And I promise you, the sense of human cost that's resulted from this enforcement effort is very real to Latino voters.
PROTESTER: He promised us that he was going to give us immigration reform, and what did he give us? A million people been deported. And so we're very angry and we're locking up our votes, and we're not going to give them to him unless he delivers.
MARIA HINOJOSA: As a candidate, Obama had been sympathetic to their cause.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel— when all that's happening, the system just isn't working and we need to change it! [audience cheers]
MARIA HINOJOSA: His strategy for change wasn't really different from previous presidents. It was George W. Bush's blueprint— tough border enforcement and deportations, together with a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: My administration is fully behind an effort to achieve comprehensive immigration reform—
ROBERTO SURO: So there's nothing new about the ideas that Obama was proposing. He basically came into office saying, "I'm going to take something that exists. We're going to put it on the agenda. We're going to get it enacted."
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: —and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now, but to start working on this thing right now.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But the president's agenda was immediately overrun by more urgent priorities.
ROBERTO SURO: Turned out nothing happened, because the first year of the administration was spent with the economic crisis. Then we got into health care reform. And then came the 2010 elections, and we're not going to be able to get anything like this measure through.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] The president said that he was going to support immigration reform in a big way in his first year, and that didn't happen.
CECILIA MUNOZ, White House Dir. of Intergov. Affairs: Well, he did support immigration reform in a big way in his first year.
MARIA HINOJOSA: The reform didn't happen.
CECILIA MUNOZ: The reform didn't happen because it requires action on the part of the Congress of the united States, which did not take it up. But he's going to keep at it until we find the partners we need in the Congress to get this job done.
MARIA HINOJOSA: But finding partners for reform has proved impossible. Republican leaders, like Judiciary chairman Lamar Smith, are pressing for even tougher enforcement.
Rep. LAMAR SMITH (R), Texas: Unfortunately, the Obama administration is not really enforcing the law. Anyone in the country illegally that is apprehended or detained ought to be sent home, not just the ones who committed the most serious crimes.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] So just to be clear, Chairman, you believe that anyone who is in this country without papers, regardless of whether they've committed any other crime, should at some point be targeted and processed for deportation.
Rep. LAMAR SMITH: Unless Congress is going to change the law and, say, grant amnesty to millions of people, the law should be enforced. And if you're in the country illegally, if you're apprehended, I think you ought to go home.
ROBERTO SURO: The possibilities of comprehensive reform have dropped so drastically. I mean, no one thinks that it's likely to come anywhere close to getting enacted with the current configuration in Washington, so talking about it becomes kind of a meaningless exercise. In the meantime, however, he has continued the trajectory of aggressive enforcement.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] The president seems have calculated that tougher enforcement might convince conservatives to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it seems now that the GOP is intransigent. So hasn't the president now basically ended up enacting the Republican agenda on immigration?
CECILIA MUNOZ: What the president is doing is enforcing the law of the land. It's— that's our obligation as the federal government. There's no quid pro quo. There is no negotiation that's happened here. Congress passes a series of laws, appropriates the funds to enforce those laws, and the executive branch's job is to enforce them.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Will this administration continue to oversee the deportation of 400,000 people a year?
CECILIA MUNOZ: As long as Congress gives us the money to deport 400,000 people a year, that's what the administration is going to do.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] That figure of 400,000 a year is a target number, a goal. It's set by ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — based on the agency's annual appropriation from Congress.
MICHAEL ROZOS, Fmr. Field Office Director, ICE: Once you tell Congress a number, they're fixated on that number. So if you were to say 400,000, well, that's etched in their minds. They're going to give you the resources to get the 400,000. But you never go back to Congress and say, "Oh, by the way, we weren't able to meet our goals," and then expect the next year is going to be as resourced up, if you will, as the previous year.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [on camera] So in essence, in terms of ICE, you want to keep your detentions as high as you possibly can because that's going to impact your budget for the next year.
MICHAEL ROZOS: Absolutely, for the next two or three years.
MARIA HINOJOSA: For the next two or three years.
MICHAEL ROZOS: Right, because you're always working two or three years out.
MARIA HINOJOSA: [voice-over] Critics say the administration doesn't have the political will to slow down the enforcement machinery at ICE and reduce the damage done by Secure Communities.
PROTESTER: How many stories do you have to hear of women who call the police to get help and get shackled, of children who are taken from their parents—
MARIA HINOJOSA: In response, the administration has been holding listening sessions around the country, promising to review deportation cases and better focus enforcement on serious criminals.
PROTESTER: We come here with an unequivocal demand that you terminate this program!
MARIA HINOJOSA: But President Obama is not backing down on Secure Communities, with plans to take it nationwide.
NENA TORRES, Dir., Latino Studies, U. of Illinois, Chicago: It's shameful. And it's shameful that it is being done by someone who was a civil rights attorney and someone who understood grass roots communities and someone who sold himself as part of this great American immigrant narrative.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Buenos noches!
MARIA HINOJOSA: Last spring, Torres, a long-time Obama supporter and informal adviser, reached out to her old friend at a White House reception.
NENA TORRES: He was, you know, very nice and greeted my husband and I and, you know, "How are the kids?" et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I just basically said, "Barack, you've got to help us." And he said, "What can I do?" And I said "You've got to stop the deportations." And he said, "It's very complicated. We've been talking about it." This is, like, a week before the El Paso speech. "It's very, very complicated, and I don't want to bicker with you right now." That was it.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Hello, El Paso!
MARIA HINOJOSA: With an election looming, the president tried to explain his political dilemma.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we've done.
MARIA HINOJOSA: He said he understood the high cost of his policies.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Even as we recognize that enforcing the law is necessary, we don't relish the pain that it causes in the lives of people who are just trying to get by and get caught up in the system.
GARY SEGURA, Pollster, Latino Decisions: The trip to El Paso was intended to reconnect the President to a core constituency that had become disaffected. He got about 70 percent of the Latino vote in 2008. But the percentage of Latinos saying that they're certain to vote for the president for reelection hovers in the mid-40s. Now, Latinos are not going to run over and vote Republican. That would be out of the frying pan and into the fire, as it were.
And so the only question is turn-out. Are Latinos so disenchanted that Latino Democrats might not turn out in the numbers that the President needs them to? And this could spell problems for the Obama reelection campaign in very closely contested states.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: What we really need to do is to keep up the fight to pass genuine, comprehensive reform. That is the ultimate solution to this problem. That's what I'm committed to doing!
MARIA HINOJOSA: Recently, the administration said that for the third year running, it expects to break records for deportations.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Yes, we can! We can do it!
SUPPORTERS: Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!