What happened to the immigrants in the Otay Mesa Detention Center?

Interview with Eddie Perez, SD Immigration Lawyer
By Tristyn Thomas

To gain a better understanding of the conditions immigrants are facing in this facility today, I interviewed Eddie Perez, an Immigration Attorney based in San Diego California, and the son of an immigrant. This is what he has to say about the Otay Mesa Detention Center as someone familiar with the facility.

In 2018, I attended a rally hosted by the ACLU with Senator Kamala Harris right outside of the Otay Mesa Detention Center. For many of us, this center is not far from home. This rally drew the attention of many, bringing a large crowd to protest the treatment of immigrants within this facility. I vividly remember the feelings of passion, outrage, and humanity that were sparked by this rally. It is now 2020, and the cries of that crowd has long since quieted. People seem to have forgotten the struggle of the detainees, largely because of the facility’s restriction on any and all media coverage from the inside. It is extremely hard to gain access to detainees within the facility, as there are strict guidelines barring public entrance, applying to even media sources. To gain a better understanding of the conditions immigrants are facing in this facility today, I interviewed Eddie Perez, an Immigration Attorney based in San Diego California, and the son of an immigrant. He predominantly works on cases that involve asylum defense, general removal defense, and family-based petitions, working right in this very facility. I interviewed him prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and this is what he has to say about the Otay Mesa Detention Center as well as about immigration.

What challenges do you fa​ce in this job? I work in the immigration court within the detention center. When I represent my clients, the lawyer representing ICE is able to have internet access, while I am only allowed to use the physical resources that I come with. This makes it even harder to win cases, it’s like I’m working with one hand tied behind my back.

Have there been any notable changes in your job since the 2016 election and/or the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols? The real difference that I’ve observed has been the level of desperation in cases. At times there are clear “winner cases” versus “loser cases”. Many cases are hard to win because of the extreme difficulty in acquiring the necessary evidence. For example, say a gangbanger claims a young girl as his girlfriend (in a possessive manner). If she denies this claim, she is forced to flee because they now threaten to kill/rape her and her family (being a threat of extortion). Cases involving extortion often result in one fleeing without evidence due to the urgency of the situation.

How does asylum law work? Asylum law is based on international treaties laws. The U.S. signed and is a part of this (largely started following WWII for war victims). One of the basic concepts of asylum law includes that you can’t send someone back to a country where they are likely to be harmed (the Migrant Protection Protocol, AKA Remain in Mexico Protocol, is a clear violation of this law).

What has been/is the general process for those seeking Asylum? The general process has involved granting asylum if you can prove that you suffered harm on a specific basis, being due to factors you are not expected to change (ie. race, religion, sexuality, PSG (Particular Social Group), etc). However, now it is the case that private violence (gang-related and domestic violence) can no longer be used to claim asylum, unless you can prove that the government participated in the persecution or did not prevent the persecution. This change occurred due to Jeff Sessions, when he was appointed attorney general, assigned a case to himself that hadn’t been touched in years, and overturned it. In doing so, he undermined decades of asylum law. He shouldn’t have been able to do this legally but no one in government is holding the administration responsible. “The main problem I see with asylum law now is the changes in case law manufactured by the Trump Administration that is designed to make the immigrants lose, and the new limits and deadlines on how many people can be granted asylum which pressures judges to deny relief out of fear for their job security”.

How do immigration courts function? Immigration courts are not traditional (Article 2) Courts. Due to this, the rules aren't the same and judges aren’t appointed in the traditional manner. As a result of this, there is no right to an attorney; You must pay or you receive no legal support. This makes it very difficult for immigrants to get representation by a lawyer, and an asylum seeker is 5 more times as likely to win their appeal for asylum with a lawyer versus being without one. To be here undocumented is a civil offense, not a federal offense (for example, someone who crosses illegally is in the same position as someone who violated tax laws).

How do detention centers work? People (who are caught inside the country or appealing for asylum) are detained on the basis that they are a danger to the community, or that they are a flight risk (will leave and not show up to their court date). Those who are seeking asylum present themselves as “arriving aliens”. Detainees are granted basic human rights; the right to shelter, safety, health care, etc.

“The Otay Mesa Detention facility is run by ICE (A federal law enforcement agency) and CoreCivic (co. which owns and manages private prisons and detention centers and operates others on a concession basis.). CoreCivic is the largest private prison corporation in America. $4-billion-a-year American industry (NYT). A federal review from 2016 found private prisons are more dangerous than government-run prisons for both guards and inmates. Private companies house about 9 percent of the nation’s total prison population. But they take care of a much higher share of immigrant detainees — 73 percent by some accounts”. The conditions have been reported to be poor in most immigrant detention centers. What are some of the conditions you’ve witnessed in the Otay Mesa Detention Center? Conditions are poor on several accounts. In terms of health care, people with medical conditions (most often diabetes, whose pills are confiscated prior to entrance) are rarely given the proper treatment (because each detainee is essentially dollars to CoreCivic). CoreCivic often claims that it is due to a “staffing issue” but they can literally hire more people; they don't want to spend the money. It is essentially a cutthroat business model. For example, one of my clients got punched in the chest playing basketball and has breast implants. She got a fever, and expected that there was a rupture. She hasn’t been treated (even after evaluation) and can be facing serious consequences (such as a malignant tumor growing in the body). There is also little to no mental health care. Additionally, one of the most commonly seen complaints involves the cold temperatures. Every detainee is only given one blanket. As a solution, the facility merely provided detainees with light jackets. There is a woman who has a busted hip due to domestic violence and is experiencing health complications. The cold temperatures aggravated this health problem, but the facility refused to give her a second blanket. There is also the issue of corruption within the facility. There have been high reports/complaints of sexual harassment. One account of this would be as follows: There is no internet/technology access. One guard exchanged an offer of allowing a detainee to have a limited amount of time on Facebook for sex.

Who is meant to hold the facility accountable? The Office of Inspector General. However, any and most issues will be blamed on a “staffing issue” - as in they don’t have enough staff.

Who is being held in the Otay Mesa detention center? Only adults (which is different from facilities in Arizona and Texas. Children can only be held for 48 hrs max. Families are not usually separated BUT if one of the parents has an immigration offense, one of them might be held while the other parent and the child can go.

Recently it has been promoted by the government administration and some media sources that there is a “Border Crisis” and there are lots of criminals, scammers, etc. attempting to cross the border. Do you believe this to be true? Most people are fleeing criminals, they’re not criminals themselves. There is currently mass extortion and violence in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), which can in part be attributed to America’s foreign relations involvement in the past.

We live in a city right near the border, so we are in no way isolated from this problem. However, there appears to be a lot of misinformation and confusion surrounding current issues about border security and immigration law. What would you like to say to people? I believe that it’s important that we make a connection with the everyday person that these issues have an effect on communities, and truly call upon our sense of compassion and humanity. Many of these people are fleeing life-or-death circumstances in their home country and migrate here only to be met with even more struggles, especially those who have to wait in Tijuana while they appeal for asylum (due to the Migrant Protection Protocol). Now many of these sanctuaries for migrants are being targeted by cartels. We need to look at why so many migrants are coming here, and what role we have to play in that (our government foreign policy and interference).

Youth for Border Aid was founded in 2019 by Tristyn Thomas, Elena Itzcalli-Medina, and Isabella Perreira. We currently operate in the South Bay area of San Diego, and are focused on expanding their volunteer base as well as planning local events. Follow our social media accounts to stay updated on upcoming opportunities to get involved! Instagram/Twitter: @youth4borderaid Facebook: Youth for Border Aid Website: youthforborderaid.org