Former Boulder Weekly Editor Pamela White wrote about the treatment of undocumented immigrants in May 2002, describing the conditions in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Aurora.
Despite the fact that many of those detained by ICE have committed no crime other than being in the country illegally, White asked why they are treated very much like hardened criminals in a state prison or county jail.
Accompanied by photos of a BW staffer crammed into a pet carrier, the story outlined what undocumented immigrants go through at the facility. For instance, White described the lack of privacy afforded the detainees, some of whom spend months or even years locked up as their case gets bogged down in bureaucratic procedures.
White says she remembers visiting the facility and seeing cells covered with glass walls, allowing male guards to watch female detainees, even when they were using the bathroom.
“Their days are spent locked behind heavy metal doors in dorms where no one has privacy, not even on the toilet,” she wrote. “As we pass one cluster of men’s dorms, dozens of curious detainees peer at us through large windows, pressing against the thick glass like fish in an aquarium at feeding time.”
After touring the facility, White returned with tales about the strip-searching process detainees undergo, the no-contact family visits conducted through phones, their limited access to exercise and the outdoors, and other ways in which the process and environment is similar to a correctional facility.
“We were warehousing people,” she says now.
The article also focuses on the personal story of detainee Colleen Brown, who called BW to air complaints about the agency, which at the time was called Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). Brown, who fled Jamaica and came to the U.S. via Canada, was like many other detainees: unclear about INS and U.S. policies, and frustrated about being separated from her children for so long.
In addition, White interviewed local advocates who provide legal assistance to undocumented immigrants, since most don’t have attorneys. They described the detention process as dehumanizing.
“They’re going to go crazy because that place is not designed for long-term detention,” local attorney Laura Lichter told BW.
“There are so many families where one person is going to be deported and there’s no physical contact,” added Laurel Herndon of El Centro Amistad. “They’re going to be deported, and they can’t embrace.”
White says the INS was infuriated by the story (and the accompanying art), and blacklisted the Weekly.
“They stopped talking to us,” White recalls.
The story, like much of BW’s news coverage over the years, aimed to give a voice to the voiceless and to expose practices that many people aren’t aware of or don’t think about.
It is easy to protect and advocate for the powerful. The real challenge is to do that with the most vulnerable and silenced sectors of our society. Regardless of one’s opinion about undocumented immigrants, White was shining light on apparent injustice and inequality in hopes of effecting change.