Pulse of America: Fear and insecurity at Mexico border

Families visit loved ones detained in an Ice facility as immigration policies tighten

As the sun inches higher across the empty blue sky of southern Arizona, a steady stream of cars is driven through the gates of the Eloy Detention Centre.

The institution, located half-way between Arizona's capital, Phoenix, and the city of Nogales on the Mexican border, is one of hundreds of detention facilities run by the United States government's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agency.

The facility is located in an isolated area of desert shrubland a few kilometres north of the Interstate 10, which that cuts through the state, a freeway linking Phoenix with Nogales and connecting the US and Mexico.

If you listen closely you can hear the sound of trucks and freight trains ferrying goods and exports to and from the border, a material reminder of the close ties of trade and commerce that bind these contiguous countries together.


But for the thousands of people detained in Eloy, the outside world is little more than a memory. For many – in particular those detained in this concrete immigration centre for years – time has stood still.

On this hot summer Sunday, detainees are outside in the yard playing ball and exercising. It’s 10am and already the temperature is approaching 40 degrees. From behind the razor wire the plaintive sound of singing can be heard.

Outside the centre, 20-year old Leslie Rosales and her family are on their way to visit their mother, who has been living in the detention centre for two years.

“She was a manager at McDonald’s but one day the Ice officers came and arrested her,” says Rosales, holding her one-year-old daughter Mia in her arms. Rosales, who also works in McDonald’s, believes someone tipped off the immigration authorities, prompting her mother’s arrest.

Rosales and her two sisters were born in the US and have full citizenship. Her parents were born in Mexico and crossed the border without papers 30 years ago.

‘Cruel’ locking-up

Her mother’s detention has left their father heartbroken. A quiet man in his 50s with little English, he has made the journey with the rest of the family to Eloy from their home in Mese, the Phoenix suburb an hour north.

Rosales says her mother spends most of her time sleeping – her case is tied up in the court system, and they have an attorney working on her behalf. Their family is allowed one hour-long visit a week. “It is the same as a prison,” she says, pointing to the heavily fortified women’s block. “It is so cruel, to lock up someone who is working hard, supporting a family.”

'It is so cruel, to lock up someone who is working hard, supporting a family'

While her mother was arrested during the Obama presidency, Rosales blames much of today's problems on Donald Trump. "Things have got worse since his election. His own wife is an immigrant you know. It is not right that he has such openly racist views, and represents our country."

Patricia Guadarrama Sánchez has also made the trip to Eloy to visit a family member. Her daughter Arianna was arrested in February and is being detained in the facility. In the meantime, Sánchez is minding her two grandchildren – Arianna’s 10-year-old son Shamarie and eight-year-old daughter Kamile – who have just been to visit their mother.

Because they were born in the US, they are American citizens. “We see her for an hour, and we are only allowed to hug her at the end,” says Sánchez as her two grandchildren kick around in the dust.

Sánchez, who is 49, moved to the US 20 years ago from Mexico, and has been working for an assisted living centre in Phoenix. She shows me her employment authorisation card, which allows her to work in the United States, but does not allow her re-entry to the country.

In addition to her daughter’s arrest, her husband was deported last May, after more than 20 years living in the US. She chokes up as she tells me how he was arrested. “He was dropping the grandchildren to school when the Ice officers arrested him. He called me from a prison in Phoenix saying he did not know what was going on. We learned that he had a court date this March but our attorney never communicated to us that he was supposed to be in court.”

Zero-tolerance approach

Sánchez says that her husband was taken from his Phoenix cell within hours of his arrest and flown back to Mexico. He is currently in Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border. “My attorney says he must stay three or four years in Mexico before coming back. I don’t know what to do,” she says through tears.

The situation facing Rosales and Sánchez is reflected in many states across the US’s border with Mexico as President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance approach to illegal immigration takes root.

While arrests and deportations have occurred for decades and throughout different administrations in Washington, changes at state level in Arizona in recent years have led to an increase in deportations here, in tandem with the immigration crackdown at federal level under Trump.

Under a new law, police officers can inquire about the immigration status of anyone they encounter as part of their regular activities, even though immigration and deportation is technically a federal not a state issue. The practice of local police co-operating with Ice officers is the opposite of what is happening in so-called “sanctuary cities” such as Boston and San Francisco, where state law enforcement agencies refuse to do the work of federal immigration officials.

Immigration has long been part of the fabric of this corner of southern Arizona. The border with Mexico is embedded in the landscape to the point that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain where the United States ends and Mexico begins.

Some 160km south of Eloy is the border city of Nogales, which spans two countries . The US side of Nogales lies in the jurisdiction of Santa Cruz county, Arizona; Nogalez, Mexico, is a stone’s throw away across the border.

A 3m-high metal wall separates the two. In many ways Nogales is a typical border town – US border control officers police the official border control posts, checking IDs and number plates as the occupants of a long line of cars patiently wait to cross.

Lost children

Trucks and freight vehicles are channelled through a different entry and exit route. But in other ways, Nogales is very different to most other parts of the United States. The streets are lined with small shops selling Mexican wares and cheap American products. The majority of residents are Mexican or South American, and speak only Spanish.

A few hundred metres from the border crossing, one company offers one-way bus tickets to Phoenix. Posters around the town display pictures of lost children who have been separated from parents.

Posters around the town display pictures of lost children who have been separated from parents

For many, Nogales is a place of transit – a place where they cross from Mexico into America, hoping never to return. Many of the undocumented immigrants who enter the US through Nogales are moved to detention centres such as Eloy once they are assessed by immigration officers at the border.

While Ice will not release details, immigration groups say that some of the parents separated from their children at the border in recent months were transported to Eloy, while their children were moved to child centres in Phoenix.

Alex Valenzuela is one of the many immigrants who crossed through Nogales and settled in the Tucson area. He is a "Dreamer" – one of the hundreds of thousands of people given sanctuary by former president Barack Obama.

Under the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme, immigrants brought to the US as children received a two-year renewable permit legally allowing them to live in the United States. Valenzuela’s next renewal date is 2019, but he is worried about his long-term status following Trump’s decision to end the programme last year.

Legal limbo

With no new legislation forthcoming from Congress, he finds himself in legal limbo, despite having grown up in the US and attending school and college there. "My sisters were born here, but I was brought here when I was three years of age. America is my home, I live and work here, but I don't know what the future holds for me. The country has changed under Donald Trump. It's frightening," he says.

As media attention to the plight of families separated by Trump’s immigration policies recedes, many hope the plight of America’s immigrants is not forgotten.

Apart from the Sunday visits by family members, the other main visitors to the Eloy detention centre are attorneys working for the many immigrant charity and representative groups around the country. With no end in sight to the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration, the residents of Eloy detention centre are placing their faith in the legal system, and hoping that some day their legal status will be resolved.

Tomorrow: “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio, one of the most infamous law enforcement officials in the United States, talks to Suzanne Lynch