Nine Central American immigrants sat at a table in their dormitory at the troubled Adelanto Detention Center and asked an officer to deliver a list of their demands to higher-ups. The officer at the for-profit facility in the high desert, north of San Bernardino, refused and ordered them to return to their bunks for an inmate count. Instead, the men linked arms and refused to budge.
“We wanted to be heard,” said Josue Lemus Campos, 24, from El Salvador. He said he and his fellow protesters had been quiet and peaceful during their June protest. But when the men refused to move, the officer immediately called for reinforcements who rushed in armed with pepper spray. They began shouting orders in English, a language the men don’t fully understand. Minutes later, the guards doused the nine with pepper spray, aiming at their faces.
“We were crying and the guards were laughing,” said Omar Rivera Martinez, 37, also from El Salvador. “I felt like I was going to die. We were suffocating. They pulled us out, beating us, scratching us, throwing us against the wall.” His nose was broken, he said, and a tooth and gold dental crowns were knocked out. “They threw me against the wall four times,” he said. “The most terrible part was they put us in the shower.” He said he was the only one of the nine who refused to bathe in the scalding hot water, which intensified the pain of the pepper spray. The other detainees “were jumping and shouting,” he said. “They were afraid.”
Rivera Martinez said he visited the detention center’s clinic where a doctor refused to treat him. Lemus Campos said he saw a practitioner for a shoulder injury he said guards inflicted during the incident. Several weeks ago, he was told he needed X-rays, but as of mid-July, he hadn’t had them yet.
Lemus Campos said the men now face retaliation and fear for their safety inside the facility operated for Immigration and Customs Enforcement by the Geo Group, one of the two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States. Eight of the nine immigrants who launched the protest remain in custody. One has been deported.
All are asylum seekers who had hoped to fight their cases on the outside. But they say their bonds, between $15,000 and $35,000, are too high for people with no money and few connections in the United States. The steep cost of bail led the list of issues the men had hoped to raise with ICE officials, along with political asylum, better food, and clean water.
Following the pepper spraying incident, the men were placed in two-person disciplinary segregation cells for 10 days. Hussain Turk, an attorney who visited Rivera Martinez and Lemus Campos a week after the incident, described what he saw in a sworn declaration.
He said he saw at least 30 scratches on Rivera Martinez, who was brought to the meeting in handcuffs. “His nose is visibly fractured and off-set to the left side of his face by several millimeters,” Turk wrote in his statement. “He appeared frightened and in pain.” Turk said when he asked an officer why his client was handcuffed, the guard made “an exaggerated air-quote gesture” and said. “For inciting a group protest.” Turk wrote that he “perceived his tone and gesture to imply a skepticism regarding the underlying violation for which Rivera Martinez was being disciplined.” Turk was also concerned that he wasn’t permitted a private visit with Lemus Campos. The two men spoke by phone and were separated by a glass pane with a guard present on Lemus Campos’ side.
GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez declined to comment on the detainees’ allegations, and in an email referred questions on the incident to ICE.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice acknowledged that Rivera Martinez lost his dental crown in the incident, but wrote in an email that the nine men involved were examined by medical personnel and none were injured. “The claim a detainee suffered a fractured nose is simply untrue,” she wrote. A required review of the use of force was conducted, she wrote, and “it was determined that proper policies and procedures were followed.”
Still, Rivera Martinez insisted that he and his fellow detainees were mistreated during their protest and in its aftermath. He said guards have hurled profanity at him, and he and Lemus Campos say phone calls to their attorney are blocked, an action the men’s attorney maintains is illegal. On July 19, Rivera Martinez reported the blocked calls to the ICE officer who escorted him to an interview with Capital & Main inside the facility.
Lemus Campos and Rivera Martinez say they need to confer with their lawyer about their pending asylum cases. Rivera Martinez said he fears for his safety inside the facility, and he and Lemus Campos have expressed fear of returning to their country.
Rivera Martinez, who worked paving roads in San Salvador, said he saw MS-13 gang members murder his brother and sister-in-law. Last fall, he and his wife were kidnapped and held for about 29 days before their captors released them, he said. His daughter had been raped by gang members, became pregnant and had a child by her attackers, he said. Lemus-Campos declined to have his interview videotaped because he fears for himself and family members who remain in El Salvador, a country he fled to avoid pressure to join criminal gangs.
“I don’t want any of that,” he said. “I don’t want to get involved in bad things. I came here to find peace.”
Lemus Campos said he made a nearly month-long trek from his country through Guatemala and Mexico before arriving in Tijuana in mid-May. He said he and Rivera Martinez joined a large caravan of migrants in Tapachula, Mexico – on the border with Guatemala –for safety on the journey.
The two men are among the fortunate detainees who are represented by counsel. Many asylum seekers, including some of the former Adelanto hunger strikers, are not. Several immigrant rights groups have championed their cause. However, calls to investigate the protest and the alleged retaliation, including detainees’ inability to communicate with their lawyers, have largely fallen on deaf ears.
Attorney Nicole Ramos, who represents Rivera Martinez and Lemus Campos, complained in July to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties protesting that her clients’ telephone access to her had been blocked. She wrote that GEO officials didn’t respond to her calls, but she noted that TelMate, the company that provides pay phone service to Adelanto, confirmed that the detention facility blocked the calls. She argued that the detention center’s actions violate a court order that specifically requires the Department of Homeland Security to protect the rights of Salvadorans, like her clients, who are eligible to apply for asylum, including their right to adequate telephone access.
She wrote that she was concerned that the calls were blocked “after counsel filed a civil rights complaint against ICE and the facility” in connection with the guards’ attack on Rivera Martinez and Lemus in June.
ACLU of Southern California attorney Michael Kaufman wrote to the director of ICE’s Los Angeles office citing case law and the agency’s own detention standards to argue that GEO guards used excessive force in violation of ICE’s policy and the constitutional rights of the detainees. Kaufman also wrote that the guards have engaged in a pattern of retaliation against the detainees, including blocking phone calls to their attorney, for exercising their First Amendment right to peacefully protest. He called for an end to the “ongoing retaliation” and for the staff to be disciplined for assaulting the detainees and continuing to retaliate against them. He also asked for a meeting with GEO, ICE, the detainees and their lawyers to discuss the mistreatment and the grievances that led to the hunger strike.
ICE has not answered his letter, Kaufman said.
“It’s troubling now that ICE doesn’t want to respond to serious allegations,” Kaufman said. “We just hope the agency would take these concerns more seriously and be more transparent about what they’re doing to address them.”
Kice didn’t directly address allegations that detainee calls to their attorneys were blocked, but said detainees have 24-hour access to call anyone they choose, including attorneys and reporters.
Immigrant rights advocates say working on behalf of detainees has always been tough, but it may be even harder under the Trump administration. Alejandra Gonza of the University of Washington law school has been helping detainee advocates take their cases to international bodies like the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights when they’ve received little response from ICE and other U.S. authorities. The international groups have no enforcement power, but they do bring public attention to alleged abuses, Gonza said.
In California, the state government may soon be the best hope for both challenging detention conditions and making them more transparent. The legislature is considering Senate Bill 29, which would give the attorney general and local district attorneys the right to enforce ICE detention standards. Additionally, in June the governor signed Assembly Bill 103, a budget bill that requires the attorney general to review ICE detention conditions and report to the governor and legislature. AB 103 places a moratorium on expanding immigration detention facilities and prohibits California counties and cities like Adelanto from entering into new detention contracts with ICE. SB 29 would prohibit cities from renewing or entering contracts with for-profit detention centers.
Inside Adelanto, Rivera Martinez vowed to continue pushing for an investigation into GEO Group’s officers’ use of force against him and other detainees, noting that the facility’s cameras likely caught all of it on tape.
“We’re not lying,” he said. “We’re not exaggerating. We want the video.”
Robin Urevich is a journalist and radio reporter whose work has appeared on NPR, Marketplace, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Las Vegas Sun.