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Every day, tens of thousands of immigrants are locked behind bars in the United States. Many are detained for months, even years, far from their loved ones and communities. They’re subject to the same abuses prevalent in the country’s criminal justice system — confinement, low-quality nutrition and medical treatment, and rampant abuse — without the constitutional right to an attorney. Although immigrants with legal counsel are more than 10 times as likely to succeed in their cases, the vast majority of detainees are forced to represent themselves in their proceedings.
The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) challenges the deportation machine and safeguards immigrants’ rights. SIFI volunteers and staff provide pro bono help to immigrants detained at four detention centers across the Southeast. Here are stories by SIFI volunteers, staff and clients from on the ground, behind the scenes — and behind barred doors.
Two Cuban police officers barged into Brayan Lazaro Rodriguez Rodriguez’s home, handcuffed him, and shoved him to the floor. They beat him in the face with their batons, and broke one of his teeth. They labeled him a “criminal,” and locked him up at a nearby prison.
As Jose Antonio Hernandez Viera said goodbye to his 6-year-old daughter in Cuba, he was distraught. She suffers from terminal brain cancer, and needs his emotional and financial care.
But Viera had no choice. The political persecution he was facing had reached its peak, and he would die if he were to remain in his home country, leaving his daughter fatherless.
During a crisp, cool evening in Cuba, police barreled into Rodrigo’s home and brutally beat him with their batons – striking his stomach, shoulders and back. He fell to the floor and rolled over in pain. He listened as police warned him they could “make him disappear.” Then, he watched them scurry off into the night.
After five months locked away at Irwin County Detention Center, Alejandra Garcia Zamarron grew panicked when she saw a familiar face arrive at the immigrant prison. It was her sister, Maytee Garcia. And she, too, was now being held at Irwin.
Once the siblings locked eyes, Alejandra began to weep.
“I was shocked,” she said. “It was devastating, and I was devastated for my mother; both of her daughters were gone.”
As you walk past the four-layered, double-barbwire fence and security cameras that mark the entrance to Stewart Detention Center, your phone is locked in your car, along with your laptop. The security camera spots you as the first gate opens slowly. The only thing in your hand is your client file, a pen and an ID.
During a day of sightseeing in Mesa, Arizona, in December 2017, Nancy Gonzalez Hidalgo and her husband decided to grab a bite to eat before stopping at a flea market to shop for children’s clothes. They had come to the U.S. the previous month on a valid tourist visa.
While they were at the restaurant, two men they had never met before sat at a nearby table. The men kept their eyes glued to their phones and didn’t speak. It was odd, Hidalgo recalled.
Alberto was riding his motorcycle alone on an empty street in Honduras when he unexpectedly heard voices behind him.
He stopped his motorcycle and looked back, watching as four gunmen sprang from their hiding spot among the trees. He recognized their faces. They had threatened him before.
They ambushed Alberto and pointed their weapons at him. They ordered him off his motorcycle, took his phone, and stole his wallet before making him walk to a river.