On Luz Maria’s first night in the custody of the U.S. government, she was hungry. She was cold. And she was terrified.
Snatched from her two sons on the street just hours before, Luz Maria, 36, was locked up in Tucson’s notorious hielera, the “icebox,” the short-term holding tank in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector headquarters. Its nickname, coined by undocumented immigrants, is a bitter pun on ICE, the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The massive station-cum-jail, occupying a large swath of land at South Swan and Golf Links, is known far and wide among immigrants for its icy temperatures.
Luz Maria’s evening had begun with the most ordinary of errands. It was a warm summer night, and she had driven with her 10-year-old to pick up her elder son at a movie theater in a mall; at 14, he was big enough to go to the movies on his own with friends. Luz Maria (not her real name) swung into the crowded parking lot and around back to the theater entrance. Her teenager was outside waiting for her. All was well.
When she pulled back out into the busy street, she made a wrong turn, then compounded her error by doing a U-turn. A siren blared instantly. Luz Maria glanced at her rearview mirror and saw the ominous sight of a Tucson cop car, its red roof light glowing in the twilight. She pulled over, and the officer lumbered over and scolded her for the traffic infraction. Then he asked for her driver’s license. Luz Maria handed him the only ID she had: her Mexican passport.
Things went fast from there. A Tucson police helicopter clattered over the scene, and a couple of Border Patrol agents arrived within minutes. In full view of her wailing boys, an agent “put handcuffs on me,” Luz Maria says, tearfully. “I never imagined I’d be in handcuffs.”
She was allowed to call her sister to come pick up the kids, but not allowed to wait until her sister got there. The Border Patrol agents locked her into the back of their SUV. As she was driven away, she could see her sons, both of them U.S. citizens, in the custody of a complete stranger, a Tucson cop.
A soft-spoken wife and mother who’d never before been in trouble with the law, Luz Maria found herself in a nightmarish otherworld at the Border Patrol lockup. Harsh overhead lights beamed down all night on the cold concrete cell, and the guards were “groseros,” Luz Maria says, rude and gross. “They used bad words. They called us whores.”
The less private detention centers spend on prisoners, the more money they make.
The only drinking water was in a common jug, to be shared by inmates. No cups were provided. The toilet was right in the room, and Luz Maria was mortified that the low wall around it gave her only limited privacy. Worst of all was the deep freeze. Luz Maria and her cellmate tried to get some rest but “it was very cold,” she says, “We had a cement bench to sleep on,” with no sleeping mats or blankets to ward off the chill.
When it came time for a meal—two frozen beef and bean burritos heated up in a microwave—Luz Maria didn’t even try to eat. Instead, she remembers, “I held the hot burritos against my chest,” using the food to deliver warmth to her hands and her heart.
Not long after Luz Maria’s night in the hielera—just the first step in her month-long odyssey into America’s immigration detention system—a consortium of legal groups sued the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. Filed in 2015, the class-action lawsuit charged that detainees in the agency’s eight holding tanks across Arizona, from Willcox to Ajo, were being held in “inhumane and punitive conditions,” ranging from “filthy holding cells” to “brutally cold temperatures” to denial of “adequate food, water, medicine, and medical care.”
Junk food like the burritos that served as Luz Maria’s portable heaters are also high on the agenda.
“The food issue is one of the claims,” says Nora Preciado, lead attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, one of the parties to the suit. “We claim the food is inadequate nutritionally and in quality. Detainees are not given sufficient food and they often go hungry.”
The case has yet to go to trial, but by November 2016 the federal judge in the case, U.S. District Judge David C. Bury, took emergency action, declaring that the plaintiffs had “presented persuasive evidence that the basic human needs of detainees are not being met.”
He issued a preliminary injunction, effective immediately, requiring the Border Patrol to provide, among other things, sleeping mats and bedding, cleaner cells, better access to drinking water, and regularly scheduled meals.
“The temperatures seem to be more comfortable now,” says Preciado, who has since conducted monthly inspections at the Tucson hielera to ensure that the Border Patrol is complying. Detainees are sleeping on mats and wrapping themselves in Mylar “space blankets,” the silver sheets favored by campers. The cells and bathrooms are cleaner. And cups have been added so detainees don’t have to drink out of common water jugs.
But the food? Not much has changed. The meals are being delivered on a more consistent schedule, Preciado says, but the menu is the same: freezer burritos, sugary juice, and highly processed crackers. Baby food is available only sometimes. And children and pregnant women are still not getting the extra—and more nutritious—food that they’re supposed to get.
And despite the court order, a Mexican immigrant named Miguel Angel, confined in the icebox for two nights in February this year—after the judge issued the injunction—has many of the same complaints as Luz Maria, who cycled through in the prelawsuit days. Caught while driving—a Pima County sheriff’s deputy claimed he was driving too close to another car on Congress Street—Miguel Angel, a 44-year-old construction worker and father of two young American citizens, was taken away by Border Patrol.
“I was in la hielera,” he says recently, sitting on a bench outside downtown’s immigration court, where he had just had a hearing. “It was disgusting.” The food was sparse, “cold sandwiches twice a day, a little juice, and no hot meals,” and his cell was teeming with men, but there were just four toilets, all of them dirty. The men slept on the floor, jammed together like “weenies,” he says, and the space blankets were useless against the chill.
“Always the light was on,” he says. “We were hungry and cold.”
Border Patrol declined to respond, citing a policy of not commenting on issues in litigation.
Up I-10 from Tucson, hidden away in the small towns of Eloy and Florence, four immigration detention centers flourish, incarcerating people caught by Border Patrol or ICE. The private, for-profit prison company CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America, runs three of the centers under contract to ICE. ICE itself runs the fourth. Together, they’re doing their part to lock up some of the 400,000 immigrants the U.S. detains in any given year, at a cost to Americans of $2.3 billion. CoreCivic profits handsomely from this enterprise, raking in fees of about $124 per detainee per day.
Detained immigrants are under civil, not criminal, detention—that’s why they’re not entitled to a lawyer at the government’s expense. Some detainees have been convicted of crimes in the past, done time in jail, and now are in detention awaiting deportation hearings. Many, like Luz Maria and Miguel Angel, have committed no crimes—unlawful presence in the U.S. is a status offense, not a criminal offense. (Crossing the border without papers is a criminal offense.) Whichever group a detainee falls into—those with a conviction or those with a spotless criminal record—no one is supposed to be subjected to penal conditions.
ICE maintains that detention centers are not prisons; nevertheless, the buildings are structured like jails and the detainees are treated like prisoners. The immigrants are housed in tiny cells or crowded bunk rooms. Their days are highly regimented. They’re frequently put on lockdown and surly guards threaten them with solitary confinement for infractions. But unlike criminal convicts, detainees have no idea when they’ll be released—or deported.
Some detainees—especially those few who manage to get a lawyer—are freed to pursue their cases on the outside after paying bonds as high as $20,000. But many, especially asylum seekers, can languish in detention for years as their appeals wend their way through the courts.
Seven ex-detainees held by CoreCivic and the spouse of one current detainee were unanimous in telling me that the food they were given was bad and sometimes inedible. Family visits are harshly restricted in CoreCivic’s centers and when family members do come, they’re forbidden to bring in favorite foods—or anything else.
“The food is one of the many things that make detention hard to bear,” says Nina Rabin, a professor at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona and a lawyer who has represented many detained women. “Food is an important piece. People often talk about stomach pains. The sheer amount of pasta and starch [means] people have low energy, they feel sick. It does impact the ability of people to hang in there and stick with their case.”
After being “processed” in the harrowing Border Patrol holding tank, Luz Maria was incarcerated for a month at CoreCivic’s Eloy Detention Center, infamous for its high death rates: 15 deaths, including five suicides, since 2003. Sprawling across worn-out fields where cotton once grew, co-ed Eloy has 1,596 beds, making it the third largest detention center in the nation. It’s the only one in Arizona that locks up women.
“The food is bad for everyone,” Luz Maria says. She was too distraught from her separation from her husband and two boys and too worried about possible deportation to eat much, but she does remember “no fresh fruits or vegetables” and for breakfast “very watery oatmeal.”
Alexis, a 22-year-construction worker brought from Mexico to the U.S. as a child, was released on July 3 from a one-month stint in Eloy and his memories are fresh.
“The food is so bad,” he says emphatically. “For breakfast we’d have egg that was not an egg: it was water and powder. We had a drink that was water with chemicals, like Kool-Aid … The oatmeal was so bad no one ate it.”
Lunch might be “green beans from a can with tomato juice—it didn’t taste good.” And the portions were small, with the food scanty enough to fit in your hand, he says. Always hungry, he made do by buying soup in the in-house commissary store. “I waited for the night to eat my own soup.”
“The food is one of the many things that make detention hard to bear. People have low energy, they feel sick. It does impact the ability of people to hang in there and stick with their case.”
CoreCivic’s other Arizona properties, the Central Arizona Detention Center and Florence Correctional Center, are both in the historic prison town of Florence. Miguel Angel, after his two nights in the Tucson icebox, was locked up in Florence Correctional for more than two months, from late February to May this year. The menu was heavy on starches and mystery meats, light on fresh foods.
“The food was very bad,” Miguel Angel says. “We had potatoes at every meal.”
On a typical day, he might have had potatoes and beans for breakfast, he says, more potatoes with “horrible gravy” for lunch, and for dinner still more potatoes, accompanied by mystery meat and a “horrible salad that tasted like garbage.”
Miguel Angel had experienced firsthand the tastier food over at the ICE-run detention center. Before he was dispatched to the private operation, he’d been held at ICE’s Florence Service Processing Center for a couple of days. Known for allowing plenty of outdoor recreation and family visits seven days a week, SPC is admired for its food, so much so that it’s become a national model in the detention world.
“The food was better,” Miguel Angel says. Chicken was on the menu, and the men could enjoy their choice of sodas and juice from a soda bar just like one in a fast food joint. Later, when he’d be taken from CoreCivic to a court hearing in the ICE facility, he got a bag lunch from the ICE-run kitchen.
“It was a sandwich, an apple, potato chips,” he says enthusiastically. “That was the only time we had fresh fruit.”
Leah Sarat, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, took a class to visit the ICE center in the fall of 2015.
“The food is pretty good,” she says by phone from Newfoundland. “They prepared a tray for us. They were generous portions. They told us it’s the ‘country club of detention centers.’”
Even the meat she was served was recognizable. Not so at Eloy, which Sarat visited in the fall of 2016. She and her students were given samples of the kitchen’s handiwork.
“It was bad, truly horrible,” she says. “We had what the menu called chicken-fried steak. But it was a patty, breaded on the outside. You couldn’t tell what type of meat it was. It was the consistency of sawdust. A disgusting mystery meat. It was like dog food.”
The all-beige meal was rounded out, she says, with a roll and maybe a potato.
The comparison between the food at the private centers and the publically run facilities gives ammunition to critics of the for-profits: the less they spend on prisoners, the more money they make. And some 60 percent of the nation’s 250 immigration detention centers are owned and operated by private prison corporations, nominally under the supervision of ICE.
“The government pays them to feed you,” says John Ferron, 61, by phone from his home in Wisconsin. A Vietnam vet who came to the U.S. from Jamaica as a kid, in later life he was held in Eloy for three years. “Eloy will find the cheapest thing they can to feed you. The food is terrible. When you think you’re eating ground beef, it’s full of filler. The only real meat is chicken.”
Asked to respond, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said in a written statement that both Eloy and the private Florence detention center “meet ICE’s 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards … those held at centers receive three meals daily using menus developed by a registered dietitian, who ensures individuals’ unique health, dietary and religious needs are met … The food must be visually appealing, palatable, and taste good.”
Food service at Eloy is contracted out to Trinity Services Group, a Florida-based outfit that calls itself the “leading food service provider to the corrections industry.” On its website, not only does Trinity promise to keep down costs, it also asserts that its food “help(s) reinforce a sense of order and control within your facility.” The nationwide company boasts about saving its customers money through “bulk procurement sourcing.”
Trinity—and Eloy—use detainee labor in the kitchen, a profitable choice that only adds to shareholders’ dividends. Instead of earning the Arizona minimum wage of $10 an hour, the detainees make $1 a day for a shift that typically lasts eight hours.
Elena, a 19-year-old asylum seeker who had escaped brutal violence in Honduras, ended up as a dollar-a-day kitchen worker in Eloy.
Arriving at Eloy in July 2016 after a perilous journey through the desert, Elena took the kitchen job “to make the time go,” she says, speaking by phone from Texas, where she now lives with her brother after winning her asylum case. To earn that dollar a day, she worked 7½ hours on the breakfast shift, starting at 1 a.m. and finishing up at 8:30.
The watery breakfast eggs she served didn’t taste like eggs, Elena says, and she swears she never saw an actual egg in the kitchen. The morning hot drink was more black water than coffee. Lunch and dinner celebrated the trio of starches that were the lament of every ex-detainee I talked to: pasta, papas y pan. Pasta, potatoes, and bread, sometimes with a little rice thrown in.
“We had pasta always,” Elena sighs. “Hamburgers made of disgusting meat and hot dogs on bread. Chicken every two weeks—that was the only decent thing. They cooked it in the oven.”
Elena says that the tasteless oatmeal Luz Maria and others complained of about was worse than just watery: it was infested with worms.
“I saw them,” Elena says. “I was working in the kitchen and I saw them. I stopped eating the oatmeal and told the other people.”
Elena was released in November 2016, and the oatmeal worms were still thriving in the spring, according to a Mexican detainee named Ana. Ana didn’t arrive in Eloy until January of this year and the two women’s paths never crossed.
“I saw the worms” in another woman’s bowl of oatmeal, Ana says. “They were small and white.” Agitated fellow detainees gathered around to see them, she recounts, and the guards, to quell the disturbance, marched the women back to their cells and punished them with an hours-long lockdown.
Released from Eloy after four months of detention, Ana is now living in a tidy rental home on Tucson’s south side. “The food at Eloy was very bad,” she says, speaking in her kitchen, where a glorious bunch of yellow bananas presided on a counter. “For breakfast we had pancakes, but they were frozen, hard and cold. There were cartons of milk that were frozen or expired.”
For lunch, they might have “frozen vegetables that were very cold to eat, pasta with green vegetables, rice with disgusting gravy, and everything mixed up together.”
Dinner might be potatoes with gravy or potatoes with mustard. There was always bread, but sometimes it was infected with green mold. On the days when it wasn’t, women would smuggle the bread back to their rooms to eat later, risking punishment.
Mealtimes were rushed and stressful. “We had 20 minutes: to walk there, get in line, eat and walk back. The guards were always screaming for us to hurry up.”
Ana bought commissary food when her 18-year-old daughter, Stacey, could afford to put money in her account. That didn’t happen often, with Stacey working as a caregiver to pay the family bills, caring for her 8-year-old brother and going to Pima College. When Ana was flush, she’d buy a $7 block of cheese and Ramen noodles for 99 cents.
Ana developed chronic diarrhea in detention, a condition she attributed to the poor diet. Even after she was released, food made her sick. For a month, every time she tried to eat, she’d have an episode of diarrhea. “I was traumatized when I was released,” she says. After two months at home with her daughter and her son, she’s still having nightmares. What are the nightmares about?
“Being locked in a small cell in Eloy,” she says.
Nowadays, like Miguel Angel, Alexis, and John, she’s here legally while pursuing her case outside detention. As a victim of domestic violence, she’s hoping for a U visa, awarded to immigrants victimized by crimes. And, she says with a smile, she’s taking comfort in her favorite food, chiles rellenos.
Luz Maria is in limbo. She was released from detention, but in the Trump era, when law-abiding mothers and fathers are being deported at higher rates, she fears she’ll be sent back to Mexico. For now, she takes joy in spending time with her jovial husband and her boys. The last time I saw her, she was sitting down to a family dinner, about to eat homemade enchiladas lovingly prepared by her husband. ✜
Tucson journalist Margaret Regan is the author of two books on immigration, Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, and The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, both from Beacon Press.
Source photography for illustrations by Jay Rochlin.
Editor’s note: Most of the former detainees interviewed in this article are identified only by their first names, to protect their privacy and safety and to ensure that their statements have no impact on their immigration cases. Pseudonyms are used for several people whose positions are precarious. John Ferron, identified by his full name, is the exception. Ferron has been vocal in the media about his case.