Deep Ties, Tested on Mexico’s Border – Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor

Deep Ties, Tested on Mexico’s Border

By DAMIEN CAVE – MAY 17, 2014

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Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

LAREDO, Tex. — The state’s standardized test approached like a spring storm, and Alina Quiroga knew her fourth graders could drown. Here at a school about a mile from Mexico along Interstate 35, most of her students rarely speak English outside class. Many, living with distant relatives, lack the confidence to speak up even in Spanish. Ms. Quiroga circled the room, her pearl drop earrings swaying, as the children read aloud about George Washington.

“What does independent mean?” she asked at the end of the passage. “Alone?” one student responded. “Free?” another said.

“As you know, a lot of people come to the United States from other countries,” she continued, referring to the early English colonists. “Do you know why?”

“Los van a matar"(they will be killed), a girl with a ponytail said. “People come from Mexico because there’s no jobs,” another student said. Suddenly, everyone was engaged and shouting — “To be safe!” “In Mexico, they steal your organs and sell them!” — until a petite girl near the front quietly added: “They want a better life.”

The Way North

Join Damien Cave and Todd Heisler as they travel up Interstate 35, from Laredo, Tex., to Duluth, Minn., chronicling how the middle of America is being changed by immigration.

Day 1: A Shared Journey

Ms. Quiroga, 48, paused. She had arrived in the United States from Cuba as a child. “A better life,” she repeated, smiling. “What does that mean to you?”

Laredo, a majority-Hispanic city since its founding in 1755, knows what it takes to incorporate immigrants. But over the past few years, as violence across the border in neighboring Nuevo Laredo has surged and as Border Patrol surveillance and checkpoints have made it harder to travel north of Laredo without documents, Laredo’s magnetic appeal has intensified, drawing immigrants who are testing local confidence, finances and the city’s bicultural equilibrium.

Fewer Laredoans now go south to visit friends or shop, while more from Mexico land here, staying longer instead of just visiting or moving on. Some are desperate and willing to accept lower wages. Others push their children into public schools, setting them up with distant relatives who sometimes apply for food stamps if the children were born on the American side of the border, leading to complaints that Mexican families are more interested in benefits than work.

The bigger worry is that in a city long known for its successful hybrid of Mexican and American cultures, the schools, churches and other institutions are underequipped, struggling to raise young Laredoans with the skills and attitude needed to fully succeed.

“We want these kids to have the same chances as someone born in New York, to follow their dreams,” said Miguel Castillo, 44, the principal at Antonio M. Bruni Elementary, where Ms. Quiroga works. “Education equalizes society.”

On the national continuum of cultural and economic integration, Laredo’s challenges are extreme — it is the most Mexican of American places,96 percent Hispanic, with a bilingual population that often prefers Spanish to English. Its daily, difficult effort to meld two cultures, though, is one local version of an evolution occurring in many cities and towns nationwide, as it has become clear that immigrants are putting down permanent roots.

Washington remains paralyzed, unable to agree on an immigration overhaul. But to understand the long-term effects and the more recent wrinkles of immigration, a New York Times reporter and photographer will explore what is happening at the community level by following the road that is Texas’ central artery and a main entrance to the American heartland: Interstate 35.

Sometimes called “the Nafta corridor,” it traces over part of the Chisholm Trail used for 19th-century cattle drives and runs the length of the country’s middle, stretching north from here for around 1,600 miles to Duluth, Minn.

A view of Nuevo Laredo from across the Rio Grande River in Laredo. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Along the way, it edges close to classic Americana: the hometowns of Woody Guthrie, Jesse James and Donna Reed. Yet it also passes through what the country is becoming, from cities in Texas that have long been immigrant destinations to those in the Midwest that knew only black and white, or just white, until newcomers from Mexico, Bhutan or Sudan arrived to butcher beef or build houses.

And for so many, it all started here — on a highway where, heading north, the first road crossed is named Washington, and the second Moctezuma.

“If you thought about what would be compared to I-35, historically, it’s the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and after that, the trans-Pacific railroads,” said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University who grew up in Kansas. “The history of the U.S. until maybe the last generation or two was an east-to-west migration. Now, it’s south to north, and it’s on the highways.”

Melding Cultures

The new cars and the heroin, the avocados and the immigrants: They all pass through here before heading up I-35 to Kansas City or Minneapolis. Especially since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, Laredo has become a city of global commerce, with truck stops the size of stadium parking lots.

But along with the legitimate trade — Laredo is the busiest commercial port of entry on the border, processing $98.5 billion in imports last year — comes whatever else the country desires or demands. Late at night, residents near the river often wake up to helicopters and squealing tires as drug smugglers try to outrun the American authorities. Immigrants, meanwhile, have come across in a variety of ways.

Some have border-crossing cards that let them travel about 25 miles into the United States for up to 72 hours. Others were born in the United States, but stayed in Nuevo Laredo until the violence exploded about four years ago as the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, rival drug traffickers, fought for territory. An unknown number have also come north as tourists or slipped across illegally.

There has always been some of this — “We are joined by the border, not separated,” said Raul G. Salinas, the mayor of Laredo — and cultural mixing has been happening organically in the region for centuries. Even the city’s response to its first immigration surge, after the railroads reached Laredo in 1881, ended up as a hybrid: City leaders devised a celebration of George Washington’s birthday that included a mock battle at City Hall between “Indians and white men” in which the key to the city was given to Great Chief Sachem — Washington in disguise.

Prekindergartners pledged to the American flag at Antonio M. Bruni Elementary, which is 99.9 percent Hispanic. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Today, the celebration continues as an elaborate party, lasting for several weeks, starting with a welcoming ceremony on one of the international bridges, followed by a jalapeño eating contest and debutantes in $10,000 colonial gowns throwing beads from parade floats to gathered crowds.

Residents describe it as a celebration of “Americanness” and a nod to Mexico. In the 1990s, that kind of friendliness was easier to maintain. Gradually, though, the pressures and opportunities of immigration spread. Some residents recalled seeing silhouettes of men with backpacks riding on trains heading north toward San Antonio. Downtown, at El Conejo, one of the first bus companies catering to Mexican immigrants, every bus going to Iowa or Kansas left nearly full as entire families moved north.

Then suddenly the border tightened, first after 9/11, followed a few years later by a major border security expansion that added American officers, boats, cameras and checkpoints farther north on I-35. By 2011, after an especially bloody year in Nuevo Laredo, the distance between the two cities had become a canyon: Laredo’s Chamber of Commerce asked Texas to remove Nuevo Laredo from road signs denoting the distance to the two cities so people driving south might not associate Laredo with its neighbor.

People’s views hardened. “Mexico,” said Hilario Martinez, safety director for the El Conejo bus service, as he tapped his Bible for emphasis, “is like an elephant in the circus — looking straight ahead, rocking back and forth, and going nowhere.”

What used to be an almost-invisible barrier became an often-insurmountable obstacle. Every month at the county clerk’s office, about 20 people deliver notarized letters saying a fiancé lives in Mexico and is not allowed to come across, leading couples to marry on an international bridge or at the fence line.

The city’s cultural mingling manages to continue. Laredo is still the Little League field near the tortilla factory a few blocks east of I-35, where coaches in Texas Rangers hats could be seen on a recent afternoon teaching players how to field ground balls in the patois of the border. (“Eso, good job, Pedro!”)

But as often as not, the process of becoming American seems to have slowed, or become less assured. From 1990 to 2012, Laredo’s population doubled, to more than 244,000, and about 30 percent of the city is now foreign born, maybe more as Central American immigrants have recently begun to appear in larger numbers.

In some cases, fully joining American life means leaving.

Tolbert Garcia, 29, joined the Marines in 2007, returning to Laredo after serving in Iraq. Standing by the fence at the Little League park, watching his middle son, Tristan, run the bases, he said he always kind of knew Laredo was a little different because when he played football in high school, other teams would often scream, “Hey, go back to your own country.”

“I was always like, ‘Dude, we live in Laredo,’ ” he said. " ‘It’s not Mexico.’ ”

At boot camp, though, he discovered his English was not as good as he had thought. He had grown up on the grittier west side, where Spanish dominated. But, he said, Laredo is still a place where most people can join the American mainstream without giving up their Mexican roots, and as proof, he cited the names for his three sons: Tolbert Jr., Tristan and Timothy.

He turned toward what sounded like an ice cream truck, but was actually a pickup selling chicharrones — another reminder of Mexican Laredo. “My uncles made fun of us: ‘Put some Mexican names on those kids!’ ” he said. “But I was like: ‘What? No. I’m not in Mexico.’ ”

Pushing English

Antonio M. Bruni Elementary, named after an Italian immigrant, is a squat brick building near a Roman Catholic church that pulls its 650 students from a district that stretches from the border through a neighborhood of old wood-frame homes tilting this way and that.

Most of the children are American citizens. The school is 99.9 percent Hispanic and 99.3 percent economically disadvantaged, and nine out of 10 students speak English as a second language.

If there is a school where the challenge of integration is more acute, its principal, Mr. Castillo, a conservative Democrat whose necktie never seemed to loosen, would like to know about it.


Rebekah Morales, whose family opted for something less traditional than a quinceañera, primped for her Sweet 16 photographs. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

His school is constantly in flux. Laredo’s two school boards after much debate successfully persuaded voters last year to approve bond issues for $533.7 million to deal partly with the overcrowding often associated with children arriving from Mexico. Some show up for the first or second grade having never attended school. Involved immigrant parents like Erika Gomez, 41, the mother of a fourth grader and a first grader, are a rarity.

“I always invite the other mothers or relatives to come and help, and they never do,” she said. “Everybody always has to work.”

Last year, Texas labeled the school “improvement required.” This year, the school overhauled its curriculum, using English instead of Spanish for children in second grade and below.

Maritza Lozano, 53, a prekindergarten teacher at Bruni with more than 20 years of experience, said she was reluctant at first.

“I just kept seeing all these blank faces staring back at me,” she said. But with the school year nearly over, many of the teachers’ views have changed. “I really am very surprised,” Mrs. Lozano said. “I’m speaking all in English now, and they understand.”

Non-Hispanics and Hispanics, in national surveys, have generally agreed that English should be a priority. Beyond that, there is widespread disagreement over what immigrants should do to become more woven into American life, or even what it means to be American.

The latest New York Times poll, conducted May 7 to 11, with 1,000 adults nationwide, makes clear that the country is conflicted about its evolving identity. Most respondents, 65 percent, agreed that the United States is a country made up of many cultures and values, but that is not how most say it should be: 54 percent said it should be a country with a basic American culture and values, though a majority of younger people — under 45 — said it should be made up of many cultures.

The United States also seems to be split over how immigration resources should be deployed. While 50 percent said the federal government should focus more on protecting the border and stopping the flow of illegal immigrants, nearly the same percentage, 46 percent, said government should focus on helping those who are already here become part of the broader society.

At Bruni, the challenge is not what to teach, but how to teach it. Bruni’s per pupil spending last year was $5,932, below the state average of $8,276 and the national average of around $11,000.

Ms. Quiroga, the fourth-grade teacher, said she feared that her students would not see themselves as valuable. Her question about the meaning of “a better life” led to a litany of needs, excitedly described by the children as if they were luxuries never to be attained: “a house, not an apartment,” “to be able to buy food and water whenever I want.”

Sitting at a child-size desk near a bookcase of English and Spanish paperbacks after the students had left, Ms. Quiroga said: “I’m just hoping to keep them motivated. I’m just hoping they won’t give up.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 18, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Deep Ties, Tested on Mexico’s Border.

Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor

By IAN URBINA – MAY 24, 2014

Slide Show|8 Photos

Working for $1 a Day

Credit Michael Stravato for The New York Times

HOUSTON — The kitchen of the detention center here was bustling as a dozen immigrants boiled beans and grilled hot dogs, preparing lunch for about 900 other detainees. Elsewhere, guards stood sentry and managers took head counts, but the detainees were doing most of the work — mopping bathroom stalls, folding linens, stocking commissary shelves.

As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.

This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Wash., of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed here.

Detained Immigrants, Working for the U.S.

Every day, about 5,500 detained immigrants work in the nation’s immigration detention centers. Some are paid a dollar a day; others earn nothing. The locations shown are facilities that the federal government reimburses for this work.

Buffalo Federal Detention Facility


195 workers

Northwest Detention Center


346 workers

Number of workers on April 1, 2014

Houston Contract Detention Facility


288 workers


Privately run center

Public facility (like county jails)


Number of workers on April 1, 2014

Privately run center


Public facility (like county jails)

MAY 21, 2014

The New York Times

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The federal authorities say the program is voluntary, legal and a cost-saver for taxpayers. But immigrant advocates question whether it is truly voluntary or lawful, and argue that the government and the private prison companies that run many of the detention centers are bending the rules to convert a captive population into a self-contained labor force.

Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.

Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.

“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”

Mr. Guzmán said that he had been required to work even when he was running a fever, that guards had threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late for his 2 a.m. shift, and that his family had incurred more than $75,000 in debt from legal fees and lost income during his detention. A Guatemalan native, he was released in 2011 after the courts renewed his visa, which had mistakenly been revoked, in part because of a clerical error. He has since been granted permanent residency.

Claims of Exploitation

Officials at private prison companies declined to speak about their use of immigrant detainees, except to say that it was legal. Federal officials said the work helped with morale and discipline and cut expenses in a detention system that costs more than $2 billion a year.

“The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities,” said Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency. Detainees in the program are not officially employees, she said, and their payments are stipends, not wages. No one is forced to participate, she added, and there are usually more volunteers than jobs.

Marian Martins, 49, who was picked up by ICE officers in 2009 for overstaying her visa and sent to Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., said work had been her only ticket out of lockdown, where she was placed when she arrived without ever being told why.

Ms. Martins said she had worked most days cooking meals, scrubbing showers and buffing hallways. Her only compensation was extra free time outside or in a recreational room, where she could mingle with other detainees, watch television or read, she said.

“People fight for that work,” said Ms. Martins, who has no criminal history. “I was always nervous about being fired, because I needed the free time.”

Ms. Martins fled Liberia during the civil war there and entered the United States on a visitor visa in 1990. She stayed and raised three children, all of whom are American citizens, including two sons in the Air Force. Because of her deteriorating health, she was released from detention in August 2010 with an electronic ankle bracelet while awaiting a final determination of her legal status.

Natalie Barton, a spokeswoman for the Etowah detention center, declined to comment on Ms. Martins’s claims but said that all work done on site by detained immigrants was unpaid, and that the center complied with all local and federal rules.

The compensation rules at detention facilities are remnants of a bygone era. A 1950 law created the federal Voluntary Work Program and set the pay rate at a time when $1 went much further. (The equivalent would be about $9.80 today.) Congress last reviewed the rate in 1979 and opted not to raise it. It was later challenged in a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets workplace rules, but in 1990 an appellate court upheld the rate, saying that “alien detainees are not government ‘employees.’ ”

Immigrants in holding centers may be in the country illegally, but they may also be asylum seekers, permanent residents or American citizens whose documentation is questioned by the authorities. On any given day, about 5,500 detainees out of the 30,000-plus average daily population work for $1, in 55 of the roughly 250 detention facilities used by ICE. Local governments operate 21 of the programs, and private companies run the rest, agency officials said.

These detainees are typically compensated with credits toward food, toiletries and phone calls that they say are sold at inflated prices. (They can collect cash when they leave if they have not used all their credits.) “They’re making money on us while we work for them,” said Jose Moreno Olmedo, 25, a Mexican immigrant who participated in the hunger strike at the Tacoma holding center and was released on bond from the center in March. “Then they’re making even more money on us when we buy from them at the commissary.”

A Legal Gray Area

Some advocates for immigrants express doubts about the legality of the work program, saying the government and contractors are exploiting a legal gray area.

“This in essence makes the government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said she believed the program violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. “By law, firms contracting with the federal government are supposed to match or increase local wages, not commit wage theft,” she said.

Immigration officials underestimate the number of immigrants involved and the hours they work, Professor Stevens added. Based on extrapolations from ICE contracts she has reviewed, she said, more than 135,000 immigrants a year may be involved, and private prison companies and the government may be avoiding paying more than $200 million in wages that outside employers would collect.

A 2012 report by the A.C.L.U. Foundation of Georgia described immigrants’ being threatened with solitary confinement if they refused certain work. Also, detainees said instructions about the program’s voluntary nature were sometimes given in English even though most of the immigrants do not speak the language.

Eduardo Zuñiga, 36, spent about six months in 2011 at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, awaiting deportation to Mexico. He had been detained after being stopped at a roadblock in the Atlanta area because he did not have a driver’s license and because his record showed a decade-old drug conviction for which he had received probation.

At Stewart, Mr. Zuñiga worked in the kitchen and tore ligaments in one of his knees after slipping on a newly mopped floor, leaving him unable to walk without crutches. Despite doctors’ orders to stay off the leg, Mr. Zuñiga said, the guards threatened him with solitary confinement if he did not cover his shifts. Now back in Mexico, he said in a phone interview that he must walk with a leg brace.

Gary Mead, who was a top ICE administrator until last year, said the agency scrutinized contract bids from private companies to ensure that they did not overestimate how much they could depend on detainees to run the centers.

Detainees cannot work more than 40 hours a week or eight hours a day, according to the agency. They are limited to work that directly contributes to the operation of their detention facility, said Ms. Christensen, the agency spokeswoman, and are not supposed to provide services or make goods for the outside market.

But that rule does not appear to be strictly enforced.

At the Joe Corley Detention Facility north of Houston, about 140 immigrant detainees prepare about 7,000 meals a day, half of which are shipped to the nearby Montgomery County jail. Pablo E. Paez, a spokesman for the GEO Group, which runs the center, said his company had taken it over from the county in 2013 and was working to end the outside meal program.

Near San Francisco, at the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility, immigrants work alongside criminal inmates to cook about 900 meals a day that are packaged and trucked to a county homeless shelter and nearby jails.

A Booming Business

While President Obama has called for an overhaul of immigration law, his administration has deported people — roughly two million in the last five years — at a faster pace than any of his predecessors. The administration says the sharp rise in the number of detainees has been partly driven by a requirement from Congress that ICE fill a daily quota of more than 30,000 beds in detention facilities. The typical stay is about a month, though some detainees are held much longer, sometimes for years.

Detention centers are low-margin businesses, where every cent counts, said Clayton J. Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, Vancouver, who specializes in the economics of prisons. Two private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, control most of the immigrant detention market. Many such companies struggled in the late 1990s amid a glut of private prison construction, with more facilities built than could be filled, but a spike in immigrant detention after Sept. 11 helped revitalize the industry.

The Corrections Corporation of America’s revenue, for example, rose more than 60 percent over the last decade, and its stock price climbed to more than $30 from less than $3. Last year, the company made $301 million in net income and the GEO Group made $115 million, according to earnings reports.

Prison companies are not the only beneficiaries of immigrant labor. About 5 percent of immigrants who work are unpaid, ICE data show. Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio, said his county saved at least $200,000 to $300,000 a year by relying on about 40 detainees each month for janitorial work. “All I know is it’s a lot of money saved,” he said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that promotes greater controls on immigration, said that with proper monitoring, the program had its advantages, and that the criticisms of it were part of a larger effort to delegitimize immigration detention.

Some immigrants said they appreciated the chance to work. Minsu Jeon, 23, a South Korean native who was freed in January after a monthlong stay at an immigration detention center in Ocilla, Ga., said that while he thought the pay was unfair, working as a cook helped pass the time.

“They don’t feed you that much,” he added, “but you could eat food if you worked in the kitchen.”

Kristina Rebelo contributed reporting from San Diego, and Kitty Bennett contributed research from St. Petersburg, Fla.

A version of this article appears in print on May 25, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor



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