DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. -- Hundreds of men and women who have committed minor offenses, such as driving without a license, or no apparent crime at all, are locked up for weeks and months in a little-known central Broward County facility run by a private company.
They are immigrants, accused of entering the country without legal authorization or staying longer than permitted.
Their treatment — at the hands of the federal government and the Boca Raton-based firm hired to keep them at the 700-bed Broward Transitional Center — has become a growing controversy since July, when a detainee went on hunger strike and activists staged protests demanding a halt to the confinement and deportation of foreigners with no serious criminal histories.
In a daring move, two young adults, both illegal immigrants brought by their families to the United States as children, turned themselves in to gain access to the center and expose what they claimed were human rights abuses and policy violations by federal authorities.
Once inside, they said they found people unjustly arrested and subjected to lengthy and unnecessary confinement, and reported incidents of substandard or callous medical care, including a woman taken for ovarian surgery and returned the same day, still bleeding, to her cell, and a man who urinated blood for days but wasn't taken to see a doctor.
ICE denies any mistreatment. In a recent interview with the Sun Sentinel, the agency's Miami Field Office Director Marc J. Moore said conditions at the facility are excellent and that the "staff here treats people with respect."
But the young activists' claims captured the attention of 26 members of Congress, who wrote to the nation's chief immigration official demanding a review of all detainees locked up at the Broward facility and an investigation into the quality of medical care there.
"Some of the reports coming out of the center are horrifying," lawmakers, including South Florida Democrats Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson and Alcee Hastings, wrote U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.
ICE has yet to reply to the letter, written in September. Last week, Deutch sent a second letter, chastising ICE for its "excessive delay" and demanding it respond immediately to lawmakers' concerns.
"It's certainly time for us to hear back, and it's well past time that these serious issues be addressed," Deutch, of Boca Raton, told the Sun Sentinel on Friday.
If legislators continue to encounter silence from ICE, Deutch said they will investigate what actions can be taken to ensure that a review of the center is made and "these human rights abuses are stopped."
595 men, 105 women
Commonly known by the abbreviation BTC, the two-story center, painted bright pink, sits behind a wall on Powerline Road, next to an animal shelter and across the street from a massive landfill.
The facility is owned and run by The GEO Group Inc., one of the nation's leading private prison operators.
GEO "has provided high quality residential, medical and programming services in a safe and secure environment to detainees" at BTC for more than a decade, the company said in a statement to the Sun Sentinel when asked to comment on the letter from U.S. lawmakers.
On any given day, the center can house 595 men and 105 women under terms of a federal contract worth more than $20 million annually.
It's the only immigration detention center in Florida run by a private company — a distinction that has brought it special scrutiny and concern.
"I think that this place is systematically set up to keep these women here — and on the men's side, the men — because there's money being made in this place," detainee Viridiana Martinez told the radio program Democracy Now! in a phone call in July from inside. "This place is owned by a company, GEO. And every time someone is detained, they are given money."
Martinez was one of the two young illegal immigrants who purposefully got themselves detained at BTC last summer to draw attention to the situation inside.
The government holds foreigners accused of violating immigration law, in order to process and ensure their deportation. Some people are confined for weeks or months while they work to gather information to prove they have the right to stay in the United States or while they challenge their deportation through an overburdened legal system.
Unlike the better-known Krome Detention Center west of Miami, which accepts violent offenders and career criminals, the Broward lockup is reserved for immigrants who committed no crime or whose offenses are nonviolent. It also can house recent arrivals seeking asylum or residency.
In incarcerating foreigners who pose no threat to national security or public safety, human rights advocates charge, the Obama administration is violating its policy announced in 2011 to focus immigration enforcement efforts on suspected terrorists, violent criminals, repeat offenders and gang members.
"ICE's use of discretion has been limited so
far, and resources are still used to detain and deport aspiring citizens who pose no risk," the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group, said in an August report.
The Washington-based organization argues that billions of federal tax dollars could be saved if the government locked up fewer illegal immigrants with no history of committing violent acts, and let them petition for legal status while remaining free in their jobs and with their families under "humane" forms of monitoring, such as electronic ankle-bracelets.
But some in Congress oppose the Obama administration's revised enforcement policies, likening them to backdoor amnesty programs.
"The best way to help immigration detainees is not to roll out the welcome mat at detention facilities. It is, reduce the amount of time they spend in detention by making better use of the tools Congress has provided to process illegal immigrants for removal more expeditiously," then-U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, a California Republican, said in March at a House subcommittee hearing titled "Holiday on ICE," a reference to detention facility standards some lawmakers view as too cushy.
Savings for taxpayers
At the Broward Transitional Center, GEO is paid $112 per day for each of the first 500 individuals housed, and $6.42 for every person in addition to that, according to Moore. Neither ICE nor GEO would provide the Sun Sentinel with a copy of the company's government contract.
Moore said those daily rates are a savings to the taxpayer, as the average cost nationwide to house a detainee is $120 per day.
GEO has no role in deciding who to hold or for how long, Moore and others stressed. Those decisions are the purview of law enforcement, federal immigration officials and judges.
But the firm has a vested interest in having a steady supply of illegal immigrants to house.
In its annual financial report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in March, GEO noted that demand for its detention services "could be adversely affected" by the relaxation of U.S. immigration laws or more lenient deportation practices.
"Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level … could materially adversely impact us," the statement notes.
The company employs lobbyists in Florida and other states and before Congress and contributes large sums to election campaigns.
The nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics estimates that between 2003 and 2012, GEO and its subsidiaries and employees gave more than $3 million to state elections nationwide.
The National Immigration Forum, in its August report, noted that the Obama White House continues to ask Congress for billions of dollars to pay for the detaining of foreigners, despite its pledge to focus immigration enforcement efforts on the suspects deemed dangerous.
"Many of these detention dollars flow to enormous private prison corporations that stand to reap significant profits when more and more immigrants are detained," the report states.
"Not a punitive place"
Complaints from detainees and their lawyers about BTC focus on claims of substandard medical care, prolonged stays, detainees' depression, unappetizing food and insufficient legal representation.
"It's bad," Juan Pablo Alvarez Castaneda, a 21-year-old who spent five months at BTC, said in an interview. "For me it was like a year. The days go slow, slow."
He was sent to the facility after ICE stopped him at Miami International Airport as he was returning from a visit to Colombia, his native country.
Though he had been in the U.S. since 2007 on a conditional green card that he obtained through marriage to an American, he was judged "inadmissible" because of a July 2011 arrest in Hialeah for marijuana possession — his only brush with the law.
Castaneda was held at BTC until lawyers he hired persuaded a judge to reopen the marijuana case, and the state dropped the charges.
Many other detained immigrants, Castaneda said, also pose no threat to the public.
He said one man was held at BTC after he couldn't produce identification to buy a pack of cigarettes, raising the suspicions of a government agent in line next to him.
Another was arrested for misusing 911 by repeatedly calling about a neighbor's alleged threats.
Still another, Dante Sosa, 31, of Argentina, was painting the interior of a Hollywood house when someone summoned police, alleging that he had stolen something. Police made no arrest for theft but contacted immigration authorities, and Sosa was confined for three months at BTC before a lawyer secured his release on $3,000 bond.
Sosa, who has no criminal history, is now pursuing legal residency. Castaneda no longer faces deportation.
ICE holds that though its current priority is on removing foreign-born felons and terrorists, it has the power to expel anyone who is in the country without the proper authority, regardless of whether they have a criminal background or not.
stressed that people are not detained or deported for traffic violations or other minor infractions, but because they have violated U.S. immigration laws, re-entered the country without permission or "gamed" the immigration system through fraud or misrepresentation. Those are civil, not criminal offenses.
BTC, Moore said, "is not a punitive place. ... It's not designed to be a prison or a county jail." People are held, the ICE official said, only "to affect a removal."
$1 a day
Detainees, some of whom have been confined for a year or more, see it differently.
"It's a jail! You wear orange!" Castaneda said.
Men wear uniforms of orange sweat pants and shirts, the women, gray.
Detainees sleep six to a room, in bunk beds, with a shared bath. There's a TV and table and chairs, but no refrigerator or microwave. Computers in the law library connect only to Lexis-Nexis, a legal service to retrieve court records. Detainees can use a pay phone to call loved ones or others.
Though the exits are guarded, detainees have access to an outdoor courtyard with picnic tables, a basketball court, volleyball played on a sandy area, and exercise machines.
To occupy their time, they can volunteer to work. They cook, clean, tend to the grounds and perform other tasks.
In return they are paid $1 a day by GEO.
Interest in GEO and its role in housing suspected illegal immigrants is so great that an Arab news channel, Al-Jazeera, featured BTC in a March documentary titled: "Punishment and Profit: Immigration Detention."
Such scrutiny apparently rattled some at the center. The Broward Sheriff's Office received a call from a staffer on Jan. 26, 2012, advising that a helicopter was flying over the facility and that the caller feared it was related to an "Afghan" news crew that had visited the day before.
On camera, a Mexican woman told Al-Jazeera that she felt pressured to work while confined at BTC: "Sometimes the officer would tell us if we didn't work in the kitchen then we wouldn't eat, because there was nobody working or serving so then nobody was going to eat."
Asked about that claim, Moore told the Sun Sentinel it was groundless. "Meals will be served, detainees will be cared for, whether we have volunteers or whether we don't have volunteers," he said.
Detainees, many of them penniless, told the Sun Sentinel of having to work to pay for phone calls to the outside, snacks or filing fees for their immigration claims.
Castaneda said he spent $70 a week on phone calls alone.
Many current and former detainees interviewed by the newspaper contended meals at the facility are unappetizing and not filling.
About 10 detainees suffered gastrointestinal troubles in May 2011 after what one immigrant advocacy group called "rotten chicken" was served for dinner. But Moore said Broward County Health Department officials could not pinpoint the cause, and that the affected people quickly recovered.
In a 2012 federal inspection review of BTC, 28 detainees interviewed said the center's food "lacked variety and good taste" but a registered dietitian certified it "nutritiously complete."
The center has an infirmary with nurses and a doctor on site, but no resident mental health care professional. People needing psychological help are taken to area hospitals.
In 2011, three detainees attempted suicide at the center, according to the 2012 federal inspection review.
In one case a "Latin female jumped 20 feet from a stair ledge" and in another a detainee "swallowed pills," Broward Sheriff's Office records state.
The federal review also found that 10 detainees referred to outside psychiatrists were not seen within two weeks as required by ICE standards.
Moore said ICE is working to speed up the delivery of mental health services.
But lawyers who represent detainees at BTC say many of them are former victims of human trafficking, domestic violence or other family traumas, and require intensive treatment.
"They are not getting the proper counseling they need," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, an immigrant rights group that provides legal help at BTC. Little said women in particular are often overprescribed drugs that do not resolve their underlying mental or emotional anguish.
Sheriff's office records show paramedics have been summoned to the center during the past two years for reported strokes, fainting, fever, chest pain, groin pain, abdominal pain, seizures, allergic reactions, diabetic emergencies, high blood pressure, and injuries, including someone with a gash to the head, a woman who fell getting off a bus and another who fell off an upper bunk bed.
Complicated medical cases are referred to hospitals or outside specialists but lawyers for immigrants say they can wait a long time for treatment.
Angel Raymundo, 38, originally of Guatemala, claims he developed a hernia that grew to the size of an orange while detained at BTC for six months. He was given medication for the pain
but said ICE refused to arrange and pay for the recommended surgery.
His lawyer said Raymundo was not informed of the reason for the refusal. "He was just basically left in the dark," said attorney Edward Ramos, who was recruited to help Raymundo by the activists who infiltrated BTC during the summer.
ICE released Raymundo in November, and his deportation has been put on hold for a year.
In another case, Luis de la Cruz, 39, who has been detained for more than eight months after being arrested for driving a motorcycle with an expired license, told the Sun Sentinel that he developed serious urological problems four months ago after being hit with a basketball and now must wear adult diapers.
A native of the Dominican Republic, he's been given pain medicine and antibiotics and taken to see a specialist, but his lawyer Magdalena Cuprys said he needs more tests and has been told he'll only be given them if he pays.
ICE won't talk about individual cases, but Moore said the agency does not make detainees pay for their medical treatment.
After infiltrating BTC, the young activists, Viridiana Martinez, 26, of North Carolina, and Marco Saavedra, 22, of New York, gathered names and stories and began feeding the information to lawyers and Spanish-language journalists on the outside, including El Sentinel, the Sun Sentinel's sister weekly.
The National Immigrant Youth Alliance set up a hotline to take calls from detainees and catalog their reported predicaments. The organization began publicizing their cases by drawing up petitions and posting them online.
Once their activities were revealed, Martinez and Saavedra, who by that time had been inside BTC for weeks, were ushered in to see an ICE official and told they had qualified for release.
"They literally kicked us out," Martinez said.
The two now are pursuing their quest for legal residency under changes the Obama administration has authorized for so-called "Dreamers," the offspring of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as young children and who often have little or no knowledge of the country where they were born.
The National Immigrant Youth Alliance claims to have found 100 detainees at BTC who also are eligible for release because they are also Dreamers, already have legal residency status, had been witness to crimes, are in need of urgent medical care, or have broken no laws and thus aren't priorities for deportation under current U.S policy.
One of those 100, de la Cruz, who had been working as a barber in Miami to provide for his two American-born children, said he continues to struggle inside BTC, with no end to his confinement in sight.
"I'm not used to being in prison," he told a visiting Sun Sentinel reporter. "It's not easy. I'm sick."
Since being locked up in April, de la Cruz said he's lost 30 pounds, and now rarely leaves his room because of the bladder infection he developed while at BTC.
"It's abuse," he said. "I've been here so long. I'm not a criminal. I'm not a menace to society."
Sun Sentinel database editor John Maines and researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this story.