Allisa and Caesar Jr. Keymolen are normal, happy, goofy kids until you ask them about what happened to their father.
They maintain composure when their grandmother, Gena Mejia, talks about Allisa and Caesar Jr.’s mother, Liberty Bell, who died of a medication overdose several years ago. During a long recounting of how Mejia’s family was tormented by a racist neighbor, the kids keep their cool. Caesar Jr., 8, is a handsome kid. He sports a short Mohawk and an Ecko Unlimited T-shirt. He squirms and makes a lot of faces. His sister, who is 10, is an unnaturally calm, beautiful girl. She fidgets with her hands, fights back giggles and eventually joins in the conversation, telling how their neighbor smeared feces on their house and called them racist names. These are some brave, resilient kids.
But when Mejia starts to talk about the day federal law enforcement agents came to take the children’s father to a private detention center for illegal immigrants on the Tacoma Tideflats, everything changes.
Suddenly these seemingly happy kids have frozen faces — like they’re desperately trying to hold a sneeze. Suddenly Caesar Jr. is still. Allisa starts rocking, holding her knees.
When I ask them how they felt when their father was taken away, I regret it. The damn bursts. Mejia’s stone face cracks. She starts to tear and then apologizes. Allisa starts to cry, and her little brother tries to fake joining in. When Mejia reaches out to them for a hug, Caesar Jr. loses it for real and joins a three-way embrace. They all begin to sob. Caesar Jr. turns away for a second, toward me.
“You can have a hug too if you want,” he says with a smile, tears running down his cheeks.
It immediately becomes clear how helpless and afraid these kids still are, even two years later. They need as many hugs as they can get. They need someone, anyone, to comfort them after what’s happened.
Mejia has lived in the United States since the early 1970s, she says. Her son, Caesar Keymolen, was 2 years old at the time. Mejia brought Caesar and his sister from Mexico to visit, stayed illegally, and later earned citizenship thanks to laws passed in the mid-1980s that offered amnesty to illegal immigrants. Since then, Mejia and her children have lived in the United States, worked hard, and expanded their family to include several grandchildren. As a teen, Keymolen built up a criminal record. But Mejia says the death of a cousin and subsequent passing of the mother of Keymolen’s children encouraged him to clean up his act. He’s a different man now, and he paid for his crimes, says Mejia.
He was living legally in the United States and was well on his way to securing his green card when he joined tens of thousands of people imprisoned since 2003 by the United States Department of Homeland Security and sub-agency Immigrations Customs and Enforcement, or I.C.E.
Keymolen was taken as part of new, aggressive efforts to sweep illegal immigrants out of the country with renewed aggression. The effort dubbed “Operation End Game” aims to deport all undocumented migrants from the United States by 2012 and is part of one of the largest police operations in U.S. history. According to the Detention Watch Network, the U.S. government imprisons an estimated 310,000 immigrants a year now — more than triple the number of people in detention just 10 years ago — in a hodgepodge of as many as 400 facilities at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion.
Many people taken by federal authorities end up in Tacoma, where Florida-based corrections giant GEO Group Inc. is expanding the Northwest Detention Center, or NWDC, which opened quietly in 2004.
Many immigrants being detained and deported have lived in the United States for decades and have families that are naturalized — husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, friends, and co-workers. Many of the people ending up in detention centers are legal residents caught up in a storm of enforcement, which drives one of the fastest growing industries in the United States — private detention centers like the one on the Tacoma Tideflats.
Mejia’s trouble started when she and her husband moved into a suburban community in Monroe, which rests about 30 miles north of Seattle. They bought two small houses. One was for herself and her husband, and the other was given to Keymolen and his children. Mejia says shortly after moving in she and her family were subject to constant harassment by a racist next door neighbor. Mejia and Keymolen petitioned for an anti-harassment protection order after Keymolen was sprayed with a hose by neighbor Daniel Sanford, who said, “I got you wet ’cause you guys are wetbacks.” The police were called, a report was filed, and assault charges were issued.
Sanford spent one night in jail.
The next day, Mejia came home to find a pair of unmarked law enforcement agency cruisers parked in the street by her home in Monroe.
“I came home from work, and when I pulled into my driveway, they blocked me in,” she says. “They asked me to get out of my car and asked if I had any firearms. I said no and that I had just come home from work. They started asking me if I was a U.S. citizen and if I had a green card.”
One of four I.C.E. officers presented Mejia with a picture of her son, Caesar, asked where he was, and convinced Mejia to call her son to arrange a meeting. Mejia says they told her that they were not going to arrest her son but wanted to talk to him as part of an investigation. When Caesar responded to his mother’s call and arrived to meet with I.C.E. agents, he was taken into custody.
“My son said the officers were pushing him around and tried to provoke him,” she says. “And then they took him for six months. They took him away from his children.”
Once inside the Northwest Detention Center, things got worse.
“You can’t believe how difficult it is once someone is in the detention center,” says Mejia. “He didn’t have a right to an attorney. He said they changed temperatures to very hot and very cold. The food is terrible. People don’t get medicine when they’re sick. They break families. They break hearts. They break lives in there.”
Based on 46 interviews conducted by the nonprofit advocacy organization One America, the kind of treatment described by Mejia is far too typical at the NWDC.
Prisoners reported being intimidated by guards into signing away legal rights. Many are moved to other facilities without notice, leaving their attorneys and families wondering where they went. Many detainees reported allegations of misconduct and physical and verbal abuse.
A female detainee, according to the One America report, was strip-searched multiple times after attorney visits.
“We were stripped completely naked. A female officer told me to open my legs wide and she peeped into my vagina, and later she asked me to turn my backside and expose my anus (by separating the cheeks with her hands). I was told to cough several times while in this position — with the officer looking at my private parts. We were forced to subject ourselves to this dehumanizing treatment. For several days afterward, I wept and have continued to have nightmares about this treatment,” she said.
One event cited in the report by six detainees involved in a transfer to an Alabama facility said they were hit and punched by U.S. Marshals. Not allowed to use the restroom for more than seven hours, several of them ended up sitting in their own feces, shackled at the hands and feet.
Eighty percent of detainees who sought medical care reported they were dissatisfied with the treatment they received. Patients wait hours and sometimes days for medical care, according to the report.
One detainee undergoing treatment for a cancerous brain tumor had multiple seizures in detention. Medical experts told detention officials that if deported he wouldn’t get adequate medical treatment and his terminal condition would worsen. He was deported anyway.In many cases, conditions inside the detention center are so bad and justice so distant that many prisoners opt for voluntary deportation.
GEO Group officials called the allegations works of fiction in several public statements.
In response to the report, a congressional delegation from Washington — including Adam Smith, Jay Inslee and Jim McDermott — have called for a thorough response from I.C.E. officials regarding allegations of abuse and mistreatment.
“The Northwest Detention Center is a symptom of a much bigger program that’s targeting innocent families and innocent people,” says Pramila Jayapal, executive director of Seattle-based One America, which is among the agencies calling for a review of immigration policy that gives nearly unchecked power to enforcement agencies and their private industry partners. “We need to demand that these programs stop until there’s been a thorough review of whether these programs are upholding constitutional standards.”
In the meantime, Mejia, her son and grandchildren are rebuilding their lives. They lost a great deal of money and two homes in Monroe. They’ve relocated to Renton. Mejia has begun volunteering with local immigrants’ rights organizations and continues to tell her story without fear. Allisa says she has nightmares about police cars following her to school. Caesar Jr. is making faces again by the time I leave their home.
“We feel safe here,” says Mejia, returning to her characteristic stoicism. “I don’t care about anything else. All I need is my family. And I don’t feel like a victim, because we just lost some material things. I fought, and I kept my family together. I still believe in justice, and I don’t think I need to hide.”