by Robin Valenzuela

Claudia*, who fled El Salvador last year following the kidnapping and murder of her son, talks about what it was like to be detained for 7 months at Jackson Parish Correctional Center.

Robin Valenzuela: Can you tell me when you first came to the U.S?

Claudia: I came on August 18 [2019].  Then on the 19th I turned 46 years old. I am from El Salvador...I had to leave El Salvador because they threatened to kill me. I left on August 1st from El Salvador and on August 18th I arrived here in the United States.

RZ: Do you still have family in El Salvador?

C: Yes, the majority of my family is there. My youngest son—I had him in El Salvador—he was 23 years old, but on June 15th he decided to go to a club with his friends because he was happy that his girlfriend was pregnant and they were going to celebrate Father’s Day and he decided to go and celebrate with his friends. But in that place, some gang members approached my son...They took him forcefully; they grabbed him and threw him in a white car and took him away. We went to make a police report and a witness gave her testimony of what had happened. We went to find his pregnant girlfriend, my daughter-in-law, and she had already heard the news. She was six-months pregnant. Sixteen days after he disappeared they [the gang members] called me and told me that they had him alive…I asked them, “What do you want?” And they told me that they wanted money.

RV: How much money?

C:  $3000. And when we had the money we called them...I told them that I had the money and that I wanted proof that my son was alive. I wanted them to put him on the phone and send me a photo and they told me no, that they wouldn’t send me a picture because I was going to send it to the police or something like that. And my niece’s husband told me, “You already sent them photos of the money. If they had your son alive, they would have sent a photo of him, they would have put him on the phone. They don’t have your son anymore.”  

On July 6th, I was opening the door to my house when two men approached, one dressed like a police officer and one dressed in black and they put a gun to my head and, while I was opening the door to my house, they threatened me and threatened to kill me [they still wanted the money].

RV: So what happened after that?

C: After that we came here. I lost everything. Those gang members took my business away from me, all my merchandise, they seized everything. After that happened to my son, I decided to come…I never imagined that they [ICE] were going to have me locked up for so long. With everything that had happened with my son and being in a place like that where they had me locked up, I felt that more and more I was going to get sick, and I felt that they were giving me a nervous breakdown. They [detention center personnel] got me medicine every day. They got me support with a psychologist because I was anxious and crying and crying, and every time I talk about my son I get sick and cry. And thank God that I connected with good people and I had some friends that took care of me, encouraged me, and told me “you are going to get out of here.” “With the papers that you brought,” they told me, “you are going to get out, you are going to see your grandson, you are going to be with your kids.” I had a copy of my son’s police report, birth certificate, other papers that could help me here—a passport and everything.

RV: Can you elaborate on what happened here after you got to the United States?

C:  I was here like two days and after they took me to a place that they call the “icebox” and there I was another two days. After that they took me to Laredo, Texas. I was there for 12 days. Then they took me to Jackson in Louisiana. I was there from September 22nd and I left on March 18th. They had me locked up for exactly 7 months. And it was hard for my daughter to get me out, because they didn’t even want to give me bail. They always gave excuses for not being able to let me go. Sometimes they set really high bails so that relatives can’t get you out and so that you ask to be deported.

RV: So can you describe a little about the treatment that you received from the Immigration officials within the facility?

C: The center is like...they say that it is like a jail for criminals. Medicine and everything costs money. They tell you they have some have pills for you but...if you need an operation, well that is more difficult and more expensive. That happened to a woman who was in a lot of pain. We told those who were taking care of us [detention center personnel] that she was really sick, and they didn’t come—not anyone, not even a doctor, no attention or anything. She was writhing in pain and her friends called her husband because they had his number and the husband—almost like out of a movie—because he was so upset, he quickly called…911…and 911 arrived quickly and asked why no one paid attention to her, and they took her to the hospital. If her husband hadn’t been so on-the-ball and gotten her out of there so quickly, that woman would have died because when they took her to the hospital, she needed an emergency operation and they saved her.

RV: Was that the only time that you saw medical neglect? Or were there other times?

C: There was another woman that was there for like 9 or 10 months, and she arrived with a snake bite—a snake had bitten her on the hand. They told her that they were going to help her and give her medicine—that they would do a medical check-up— and they never did anything for her, and she has been there exactly 8 months. Her hand was getting really bad, like the venom that was inside her hand hadn’t come out, and she got like injections in her hand, and she got sores. They oozed plasma and they dripped on her hand too. And they have her there so nobody is helping her. They don’t even feel sorry for her.

RV: So there wasn’t a medical professional, or a clinic, or anything there?

C: No, there no. The only thing that they do is give you pills, medications that they call “antibiotics,” but those don’t even do anything because after so many months and months, her hand was still oozing like it was a fresh wound even though they were “healing” the sores on her hands. And she lost her asylum claim and she is appealing just in case they give it to her because she doesn’t have an attorney or anything and because she can’t even communicate with her family, and they can’t do anything… There are people that have been there up to 10 months, 11 months. At 12 months they have their last court hearing and sometimes they are denied and they lose, and if they want to appeal they have to wait another 6 months.

They don’t give good medical care or adequate medicine and the food is the same. The food—beans and rice, beans and rice, for each of the three mealtimes. I had a toothache and they only gave me pills, and the pills never even soothed the pain. They told me that one of the dentists was going to come by. They told me that every month around the 15th dentists come by, but there were so many of us plus the men in the other place that they said that the line for the men was longer and they never came. My medicine never came.

When the illness began, they sprayed something like Clorox...everything was covered with it three times a day...I got worried because I started getting a stomachache and I felt like I was going to faint. The last day that I was there, there was another woman...after getting to lunch, she began vomiting and vomiting, and she got a headache, and she said that her kidneys were hurting.

Another thing: We begged and begged for two microwaves at least because there was only one microwave for 100 people that were there and everyone was fighting because each person had 8 minutes to cook and if you went one minute beyond that, they would fight, because sometimes it was 11 at night, 12 at night. Sometimes there are people that stay there without eating, and we, after seeing all that, asked that they give us another microwave, but they told us that it was a privilege that it was there and that it wasn’t necessary.

RV: And how often did you have the opportunity to speak with people outside the center like your family? Your attorney?

C: My attorney always called, but they wouldn’t even let the attorneys in to speak with you. All the time I was there, for seven months, I could only speak with my attorney twice.

RV: So can you describe to me what the most difficult part was about being in the detention center?

C: They give us breakfast is at 3 am. Who is going to get up at that hour to eat breakfast? Lunch is at 11 am; dinner is at 3 or 4 or 3:30. And then at 8 or 9 pm you are dying of hunger because they only give you rice and beans and the little that you eat doesn’t fill you up. And so the person that suffers the most is the person that doesn’t have family members that can pay the commissary for something to eat. Every week, every week, my daughter put $50 towards the commissary. Everything there is expensive. It is a business for them. That’s why they don’t let anyone leave because that is their profit—having so many people there.

I had three court hearings and they didn’t want to let me leave. They gave me excuses. My daughter has all the papers...and my daughter said that she had brought the birth certificate and they said she hadn’t and that it seemed like she wasn’t my daughter, and they didn’t want to let me out. And the third court hearing is where they told me that they were going to do it but for a high bail amount. And I was worried because they had set bail as high as $30,000, $25,000, or $20,000 and there are people that don’t pay it. They don’t have money; their family members can’t pay that. It is so that you request a deportation, and the majority are deported. But thank God, they set my bail at $10,000 and my daughter—well I think she borrowed money in order for me to be able to leave. I still have another court date, but because of COVID-19 they haven’t given me a date to go to court.

*Name changed for privacy purposes

Robin Valenzuela is a Cultural Anthropologist and Visiting Professor at Purdue Fort Wayne. She is a founding member of Indiana Assistance to Immigrants in Detention (Indiana AID), a detention visitation program in Indianapolis, IN. Robin has been an FFI volunteer for over a year.

Cover sketch by Julio Diaz, who sent it to FFI while he was detained at Jackson Parish. His current whereabouts are unknown.