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Colorado College researchers document abuses at N.M. immigration detention centers

Travelers cross the Paso del Norte bridge just prior to the expiration of Title 42 in May 2023. Corrie Boudreaux/Source NM
Men held in Cibola and Torrance share stories about ‘clear and obvious’ violations

A new report documenting ongoing abuses at two federal immigration detention facilities in New Mexico concludes the facilities should close, and everyone inside should be released.

Three undergraduate researchers from Colorado College published the report on March 13, detailing how two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in Milan and Estancia – and immigration detention in general – put migrants’ safety, wellbeing and rights at risk.

“ICE has long evaded accountability for such abhorrent violations of national detention standards – an outcome facilitated by flawed oversight mechanisms that consistently fail to address inhumane conditions in facilities,” the report states. “The migrants whose stories are shared in this report came to the U.S. in search of asylum and a better life but were met with a system that criminalizes and dehumanizes them.”

Based out of Albuquerque as part of Colorado College’s Activism Institute, the students spent six weeks in November and December conducting extensive interviews with 20 asylum seekers detained in civil immigration custody in the facilities. They did so in partnership with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.

Under contracts with ICE, the Cibola County Correctional Center and the Torrance County Detention Facility must follow guidelines set under the 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards.

Researchers found several examples of the facilities and their staff violating the detention standards.

The study reports violations such as excessive use of force by guards, inappropriate sexual assault prevention and response, inadequate medical care, insufficient access to legal information, poor and unsanitary food service, unsatisfactory provision of personal hygiene items and limited recreation availability for people detained.

Diana Buda, Daisy Gomez Rivera, and Natalia Ocampo are the researchers from Colorado College. They presented their findings in a virtual webinar on March 11.

Gomez Rivera said they found “clear and obvious violations” of the detention standards, and the standards themselves are not doing enough to protect people in ICE custody.

“It is a deep injustice to continue to subject people to cruel imprisonment,” she said. “The time is now to shut down Cibola County Correctional Center and Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico and release all individuals held at these facilities. By ending the detention of human beings, we can begin to address the undignified treatment of migrants.”

The entire 96-page report can be read at https://www.nmilc.org/our-blog/what-theyre-doing-to-me-is-an-injustice.

Venezuelan held at Torrance describes abuses

In the report, Jesus Rosales Gonzales, a 25-year-old agricultural engineering student from Venezuela who is incarcerated in Torrance, said he was brought there “like many others by being tricked.”

“They had told us that they were going to allow us to fight for asylum outside of detention,” Rosales Gonzales says in his sworn statement based on his interview for the study conducted in Spanish. “Next thing I know they are putting us on buses and handcuffing us.”

To win asylum after someone crosses the U.S.-Mexico border, they must first show they have a “credible fear of persecution or torture” if they were to return to their home country.

Rosales Gonzales said he had no privacy during his credible fear interview and the translator didn’t translate everything he said.

“People who leave the center with positive credible fear interview results are told by the officers that they will die in this country, that they won’t survive, and that no one wants them here,” he said.

He said four rooms in his unit are “inundated with dirty water.”

“We have told the officers but they have not done anything about it,” Rosales Gonzales said.

He said staff give incarcerated migrants tiny pieces of soap and low-quality shampoo twice per week, very small toothbrushes and not enough toothpaste to brush their teeth well.

The bed sheets and clothes are too thin and do not protect incarcerated migrants from the cold, he said.

Rosales Gonzales said staff give them very little food of poor quality.

“Some of the food they give us looks very grotesque, almost like it is animal food,” he said. “We tell the officers that the portions are too small and they tell us that the chef decides the portions and that we can survive off of that. I don’t believe them because we feel weaker every day.”

He said the guards have physically, psychologically and verbally abused all the migrants at Torrance.

“I fled my country because I was scared they were going to kill me or that I would be incarcerated, but look at me here,” Rosales Gonzales said.

Lawmakers respond

The report has attracted responses from state and federal lawmakers representing New Mexico.

At the webinar, Claire Dudley Chavez, policy director for New Mexico House Speaker Javier Martinez, said he “remains wholeheartedly 100% committed to getting the Dignity Not Detention bill across the finish line next session.”

The proposal, which would have amended state law to bar local governments from entering or renewing contracts with ICE to detain people for civil violations of federal immigration law, has died twice in the New Mexico Legislature in as many years.

“We had a bit of a heartbreaker this session, but we will not give up, and this work will be really important and significant as we continue to push for the full passage of that bill,” Dudley Chavez said.

In response to the report, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said, “For years now, I’ve been urging ICE to take immediate action to remedy unsafe, inhumane conditions at Torrance County Detention Facility.”

“ICE’s continued failure to meet basic standards for humanitarian conditions is deeply concerning, and it’s why I’ve repeatedly called on them to terminate their contract with the detention facility,” Heinrich said. “I won’t stop fighting until this finally happens.”

Also in response to the report, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said, “Torrance County Detention Facility has repeatedly failed inspections, and the Department of Homeland Security OIG reports are alarming.”

“Anyone in the care of the United States should be treated with the utmost respect,” Luján said. “I have written letters and continually pushed the Department of Homeland Security to do better in regards to Torrance, and have called to end their contract with this facility. Now is the time to make real and lasting change.”

Source NM is an independent, nonprofit news organization that shines a light on governments, policies and public officials.