This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
Two men were walking in the desert near the Arizona border, arguing. They were a coyote and his client, both Mexican, and their arrangement had been to cross that night into the southwestern US. The client, José de Jesús Deniz-Sahagun, had already paid about half of the coyote's fee and would pay the other half on arrival. That was how it worked: half up front, the rest held back to encourage safe passage. But as they got closer, the coyote became erratic and loose with the terms, until he was insisting that he wanted all the money right away.
This was a dangerous sign. If Deniz-Sahagun paid everything now, the coyote would have no reason not to ditch him in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Alone, Deniz-Sahagun would get lost. That afternoon the vista had been nothing but 360 degrees of indistinguishable rock and scrub, and now that the sun had set, it was worse. You couldn't look at the sky and orient yourself. Even if you could, what would you do? Walk north, blind, hoping you ran into an unprotected little tunnel under the fence line?
Deniz-Sahagun was crossing illegally because a failed attempt in 2013 had cost him his legal options. Customs and Border Patrol caught him at the California border and sent him back to his hometown of Jalisco. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it was illegal to reenter for a period of five years. Now, it was May 2015: If the US nabbed Deniz-Sahagun this time, he'd have no legitimate avenue for residency. On the basis that illegal reentry constitutes a felony, a judge could decide to sentence him to prison. Once he served, he would be deported again.
Five hundred miles northwest, in a house in suburban Las Vegas, his three children were waiting for him. They were five, seven, and eight—two boys and a girl, living with Deniz-Sahagun's ex. The boys especially were excited. Ever since Deniz-Sahagun had left Vegas in 2011, to care for his ailing father back in Jalisco, they'd had no one to play cowboys with. They constantly complained to their mother; it drove her crazy. Deniz-Sahagun knew this because his sister Rosario would visit them and give him updates. Rosario came to the US as a girl, and she was a citizen by marriage. Deniz-Sahagun planned to stay at her house until he found his own place.
In the desert, the coyote was growing impatient. He was saying Deniz-Sahagun had two choices. He could pay the whole fee now, or he could be killed.
Deniz-Sahagun decided to run. He came to a road, where headlights widened toward him. He flagged down the car. "Can you get me out of here?" he said. "Can you leave me near the border?" He dug in his pockets and produced a wad of pesos. The man palmed the money. When they were driving, Deniz-Sahagun took out his cell phone and called Rosario. She'd helped him vet the coyote with some people she knew in Vegas; she knew the whole plan. He told her what had happened. "Everything will be OK," he said. "Come down here and find me."
Around 11 PM, they reached the Border Control checkpoint at Douglas, Arizona. Deniz-Sahagun got out of the car and started running toward a guard. "They are going to kill me," he shouted. Border agents are trained to view statements of "credible fear" as the potential first step in an asylum petition, and because asylum claims override the ban on reentry, Deniz-Sahagun was taken into custody, though he had never intended to petition for asylum. Immigration law is full of these sorts of chutes and false bottoms, which cause people to fall into Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) system without fully understanding why.
At passport control they patted him down and found his national ID card and 1,100 pesos (about $60). They took his cell phone and moved him into a separate room for an interview. An agent had a questionnaire in front of him. He spoke in Spanish. "What's your name?" he said. "What's your date of birth?" When Deniz-Sahagun tried to answer it was hard to speak, and he was abruptly in tears. "Crying and could not provide his name," the officer wrote. They got out the pad to do his fingerprints.
He'd been in these rooms in the past. They gave you forms to sign that you could not understand, some half in English and half in Spanish, some only in English. "Proceedings under section 235(b)(1)—signature of alien." At 2:30 in the morning, they asked him if he wanted to speak to his consulate in Tucson.
"Yes," he said.
The agent picked up the phone. But Deniz-Sahagun changed his mind. It might be better to say as little as possible and wait to see a judge. He said to forget it and hang up. The agent drew squiggles over the word "asked" and wrote "declined" in the space above it: "Subject declined to speak to consulate." Then the agent asked Deniz-Sahagun if he wanted them to notify anyone else.
"My sister," he said.
In North Las Vegas, Rosario's cell phone rang. Rosario was a beautician and kept normal working hours. At 2:45 AM, it was late for her to get a call. She worried it was her brother. She picked it up. "I am an officer of US Customs and Border Protection at Douglas," the voice said. "Your brother who has arrived in the United States has asked that we contact you. He is safe. However, a decision regarding his application for admission is pending."
"Can I speak to him?" she said.
"Not during processing."
"But if anything changes with him, will you call me?"
"They'll communicate with you," the agent said, "but they're going to move him." He meant move him to a detention center to await trial. They hung up.
Three days later, ICE put Deniz-Sahagun on a white bus with tinted windows that started north into the desert. His kids were five hours away, northwest, if you drove fast.
When they stopped, they were at a low white prison about midway between Phoenix and Tucson. There didn't appear to be a town around it. A sign at the entry said "Eloy Detention Center." The bus unloaded. Inside, they handed Deniz-Sahagun green pants and a matching shirt, orange socks, a toothbrush, and shoes that closed with Velcro. Then they let him use the phone. He called Rosario. "I'm going to need a lawyer," he said. This time, he sounded shaken and less confident, or he could have been exhausted. When Rosario called again the next day, though, she was told her brother couldn't come to the phone, and her English wasn't good enough to ask why.
The reason was that an intake screening had flagged Deniz-Sahagun as a suicide risk. For a day, they held him on continuous watch in a cell where all the edges were soft and the sink had no detachable parts. When they later moved him to a normal cell, they checked on him every 15 minutes. At 4:57 PM on May 20, Deniz-Sahagun seemed fine. At 5:33 PM, he wasn't moving. Medical staff placed defibrillator patches on his chest and electrographs on his fingers, but they couldn't revive him. The prison called the Eloy Police Department, which sent a detective. At 6:09 PM, Deniz-Sahagun was pronounced dead. He'd been inside Eloy for two days.
The county medical examiner traveled to the prison to look for evidence. The case was a little unusual. Here was a 31-year-old man, seemingly healthy, 182 pounds, five feet eight, dead from no apparent cause. No blood pooled around the wrists, no cinched-up bed sheet, no packet indicating something smuggled. Only a sock was missing from the inventory of clothing.
The following afternoon, a funeral parlor delivered the body to Gregory Hess, the medical examiner of Pima County. Hess had access to something the public did not: a video of Deniz-Sahagun's cell, which ICE had sealed. The agency investigates detention deaths internally, and it has a wide berth in blocking access to relevant records. Years might pass before anyone besides Hess saw the video. But it provided no answers, Hess wrote in his report. It showed no one entering the cell in the hours before Deniz-Sahagun died. An altercation with guards left Deniz-Sahagun with bruises, but they too, in Hess's analysis, failed to explain the death. During the autopsy, he made a Y-shaped incision in the chest and peeled back the skin to access the throat. Inside, lodged so deeply that the guards hadn't seen it, was a prison-issue orange sock. A little plastic handle, like that of a toothbrush, was in the stomach. Hess wrote "suicide."
The 10,000 free people in Eloy, Arizona, have their houses on a small square of desert, cut diagonally by railroad tracks. The city's 7,000 prisoners occupy another square, ten miles north, in four compounds run at a profit by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a $3.4 billion publicly traded corporation based in Nashville, Tennessee, with more than 70 prisons in 20 states. Red Rock is for inmates of the state of Arizona, La Palma for those of California, Saguaro for male felons from Hawaii, who are flown here by charter planes into the tiny airport in Mesa. The fourth prison is the Eloy Detention Center, which houses 1,500 immigrants the government may deport. There's no one path that leads here. Many people are apprehended at the border, but others have been living in the US for years when police tag them for a minor offense like unlicensed driving, or when the sheriff's department sweeps them up in a work raid. While inmates at La Palma are waiting to do their time and go home, inmates at Eloy are waiting to learn where home will be.
Because Arizona counts them as residents in the census, these 7,000 prisoners bring in about $2 million annually in state subsidies, about a sixth of the city's general fund. All told, CCA provides jobs to 1,600 people. It is a good arrangement for the town, where per capita income is $9,000. Though cotton still grows along State Route 87, irrigated and satiny, today the fields are mostly scenery for guards to pass on their way to work.
North of the railroad tracks, Eloy sprawls off into tracts of single-story houses crisscrossed with fencing and unruly trees. There's a Mexican restaurant where guards like to eat, a roadhouse bar, a lot of boarded-up real estate, a place to buy ice, and a modern library in a glassy, air-conditioned building. Until recently, people could open carry their sidearms into the library and leave them in a gun safe, but the head librarian became nervous that his employees would eventually shoot a patron or themselves while locking and unlocking the weapons. The guns are now banned.
None of this is anomalous for a rural city that accommodates one of ICE's 82 detention centers, but Eloy is indeed an anomaly. Since 2004, 14 detainees have died here, twice as many as at any other facility. Five inmates have committed suicide. Deniz-Sahagun would make six.
Since 2003, 155 men and women have died inside immigration detention centers. Though the causes of death vary, the dead have one thing in common that is often overlooked: They have not been convicted of any crime. Immigration detention centers differ from immigration prisons in that they hold only people who await trial. Eloy is more like Rikers than San Quentin. Further, pre-trial detention in the immigration system is generally short. The most recent figure puts an inmate's average stay at Eloy at 123 days, and though lawyers say it's getting longer, immigrant-rights advocates are alarmed that so many people, during such brief periods of confinement, are dying from preventable causes like suicide. How are things going so wrong, so quickly, for so many?
One former inmate recalled how a fellow prisoner had tried to stab himself in the throat with a pencil and another tried to hang himself with a towel.
The month after Deniz-Sahagun's death, inmates at Eloy began a hunger strike to demand an explanation. A local activist group expressed a lack of confidence in the results of the autopsy, and Deniz-Sahagun's siblings convened a press conference to say they did not believe their brother had died by his own hand. Through a spokesperson, ICE denied any wrongdoing and didn't acknowledge a hunger strike was even occurring.
In June, I flew to Phoenix to try to understand what was happening at Eloy. There were rumors of foul play. A former inmate, just deported to Nogales, told the activists that he'd seen guards beating Deniz-Sahagun before he died, and in a house in north Phoenix, I met Sara, a 21-year-old Salvadoran who'd been released from Eloy that morning (she asked that I not use her last name). She'd been inside when Deniz-Sahagun died. Sara said a man had been heard screaming inside Eloy on the afternoon of May 20, "from the blows he was getting."
Once I started asking, other disturbing stories surfaced. Another former inmate, who lives in the suburb of Glendale with his wife and three kids and asked me not to use his name for fear of retaliation, spent five months in Eloy in 2013 and claimed that during his confinement a fellow prisoner had tried to stab himself in the throat with a pencil. Another had tried to hang himself with a towel. A friend of his from Mexico went insane and saw spirits and the devil. "The desperation you have inside," he said. "You're hopeless."
All the inmates at Eloy are there because they're waiting to see a judge, and practically speaking, the only path out of Eloy is through immigration court. This is one of the most secretive legal processes in the country. Transcripts and recordings aren't available to the public, and a third of the courts are located, like Eloy's, inside prisons that are themselves remote. One lawyer who practices at Eloy characterized it to me as "a trial of endurance—a trial of ordeal, as they used to say in common law." He was comparing it to burning someone to see whether she's a witch.
I parked in the visitors' section and put my camera and recorder in the trunk. (CCA doesn't allow them inside.) Beyond a fence, detainees played soccer in the rec yard. I walked past the parking spot reserved for the employee of the year, and in the waiting room, I sat on a foamy, purple sofa behind a family watching the series Chronicles of Narnia on a TV. They had been there for three hours. At one point, the younger son went to the vending machine to buy packs of beef jerky for his dad, who was detained.
A guard brought me through an airlock and down a corridor painted with an American flag mural and three words, the CCA way. (Inmates work for CCA for $1 per day—among other jobs, they empty the trash cans in court.) Outside the courtrooms, detainees and two lawyers stood quietly. The guard opened a door into a white cinderblock room, and I followed him in.
"It's going to be ten thousand," the judge was saying. I had come during bond hearings. Immigration lawyers who practice at Eloy remember the days when a typical bond was $500, but over the past five years the cost has spiked. Another detainee approached the bench. "We'll do this one at $8,500," the judge said.
Four judges sit at Eloy. This one was James DeVitto, a middle-aged white man with a prominent nose and an expression of weary disapproval, or of weariness with the act of disapproving. A young lawyer with light blond hair represented the Department of Homeland Security, the supervising agency for ICE and the plaintiff in all immigration cases.
The only three female defendants in the courtroom sat together. One was in her 20s, with shoulder-length black hair. She neared the defense table.
"Are you representing yourself?" said DeVitto.
"I have an attorney," she answered through the translator. "I have his business card."
Everyone looked around the room; there was no attorney present. DeVitto asked a guard to check the hallway.
"Is he there?"
"No, Judge," said the guard.
DeVitto studied the case documents from the bench. "He filed his request to represent one hour ago. He is based in Texas. Let's move back to June 25." That the delay would result in an appearance by this lawyer was not certain. The certainty was that the young woman would stay inside Eloy while she waited.
A young man with a shaved head rose.
"Do you want time to find an attorney?" DeVitto asked.
"No," he said.
"You're going to waive and represent yourself? Proceed today?"
The young man said he would. DeVitto nodded. "DHS just gave us some documents," he said. "Do you want a week to review them?"
DeVitto flipped through pages. "You submitted this document in the Spanish language. I cannot consider unless it's in the English language. Do you want your case postponed?"
The man considered his odds. Though the court provides a translator during proceedings, the law states that it doesn't have to translate documents into English or accept them in Spanish. If translating documents seems the kind of thing a lawyer might help you do, that's true, but defendants in immigration court do not have the right to lawyers. As the official practice manual for the court puts it, they have "the right to counsel at no cost to the government." Because they want to get out of detention as quickly as possible, defendants often choose to represent themselves and plead their cases without presenting any evidence or even reading the government's case.
"No," the young man told DeVitto. He didn't want his case postponed.
Each judge at Eloy is an alumnus of ICE or its pre-9/11 predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an issue the Department of Justice implicitly addresses in its manual. Buried in that book is the instruction: "Care should be taken not to confuse the Department of Homeland Security with the Immigration Court or the Immigration Judge." In plain-speak: Don't forget that the judge is not the prosecutor.
Down the hall from DeVitto, Judge Irene C. Feldman was hearing deportation cases, which constitute the end of the line for most detainees. Feldman is in her mid-50s, and when listening to a defendant, she takes her glasses off and leans over the desk in a way that conveys stern sympathy.
A young woman took her seat alone at the defense table. She had indicated at a prior hearing that she was scared of returning to Mexico, and she now had to decide whether to apply for asylum—remaining at Eloy during the process—or to abandon her petition and request her own deportation. "Whatever decision you make," Feldman said, "I will respect. Are you scared to return to Mexico?"
"No," the woman said. "I'll move to a different city."
"I need you to tell me honestly whether you have fear, and I will give you more time to prepare your application," Feldman said.
The young woman requested removal that evening. Feldman nodded. "I sustain removal as charged."
Of a total of 270, only eight immigration judges in the country deny asylum petitions at a higher rate than the four judges here, a reflection partly of the huge number of asylum petitioners at Eloy who are unrepresented by lawyers: 72 percent against a national average of 15 percent. Lawyers are the single most useful factor in predicting the success of a petition—without one, the chance of failure is 89 percent.
At the end of the day in Feldman's courtroom, a young man walked up to the table without a lawyer. He had pockmarks and a slight overbite, and when he spoke, he dipped his head too closely over the microphone, sending his loud voice booming out into the room and provoking laughter among the other detainees on the benches. His pants fit a little short, exposing stripes of orange sock. When Feldman ran down the accusations on the charging document, he said "admito" very deeply and slowly after each one. "You are not a citizen of the United States. You entered at an unknown location on an unknown date." The other detainees exchanged looks.
Feldman finished reading. "Do you have any fear of returning to Mexico?" she said.
"I want to see my family as soon as possible."
"Do you understand that I am removing you—that is, deporting you to Mexico?"
"Sí," the man said.
"Illegal reentry after removal is criminal, with a maximum sentence of 20 years," Feldman concluded.
In the popular imagination, deportation is the disastrous wrong turn in an immigration story, the irreversible unhappy ending. But when the officer handed him his removal order, the defendant was weeping in relief.
"Que Dios te bendiga," he said. "God bless you."
At this, no one laughed.
One month later, Gregory Hess, the medical examiner of Pima County, answered the phone at his office in Tucson. Much had come to ride on him. I had placed a FOIA request for the video footage of Deniz-Sahagun's cell during the hours surrounding his death, but nothing had come back, which made Hess the single source on that crucial piece of evidence. He was the only person who had seen the tape and had any obligation to speak to media. "I'm calling about the recent death at Eloy," I said, "and I have just a couple questions." Though the rumors about Deniz-Sahagun getting beaten to death were impossible to corroborate, it was nonetheless difficult to accept that a man with three kids in Las Vegas had arrived at Eloy, asked his sister for a lawyer, and then asphyxiated himself two days later. I asked Hess to walk me through the whole thing step by step, from the moment his office received the body.
Inferring my skepticism, he took a kind of preemptive detour. "If you were a history buff," he said, "and you were to google 'Attica 1971,' you'd see that that's where all this comes from." By "all this," he meant his job. Attica was the site of the most famous prison riot in New York: After several guards were killed, the state tried to pin their deaths on inmates, but the medical examiners proved that state troopers had shot the guards accidentally. "Our job is to try to prevent law enforcement buffoonery or strange things," Hess said.
"It seems hard to believe that they didn't notice the sock in his throat," I said.
"It was so far in," Hess said. "We had no idea it was there."
"What about the story that says he fought with guards?" I said.
"He didn't have any black eyes or a broken nose," Hess said. "His teeth were fine, his tongue was fine. All those injuries you would expect to find weren't there. And of course, you have the video."
Of course, you have the video. When I got off the phone, I didn't google Attica, but I did google Gregory Hess. A professor of pathology at the University of Arizona, Hess recently lent his name to a report on the "humanitarian crisis at the border." He's been at it for 14 years. Lying to me would mean throwing his whole career in the trash to cover up a homicide by prison guards that would eventually be uncovered anyway, when the video was released.
Two weeks later, ICE denied my FOIA request. A month passed.
In August, I learned from an activist group in Phoenix that Deniz-Sahagun's family had retained a lawyer to explore the wisdom of a wrongful-death claim. I recognized the lawyer's name, Daniel Ortega. Well known in Phoenix, he practices civil rights law. He is representing the family of a woman who hanged herself at Eloy in 2013. "Whatever investigation they do," he told me, "is secret unless you sue them. With José, we won't know until we file a lawsuit." A lawsuit would take years, though, if it ever even happened. The case from 2013 had still, in 2016, not made it to trial.
This pointed to a larger problem. Wrongful-death suits in the immigration system are not easily tried. To get access to essential evidence like videos, plaintiffs need to push all the way to pre-trial discovery. In other words, you have to file a lawsuit to learn whether filing a lawsuit makes sense. Public pressure can compel the release of videos in police shootings and jailhouse deaths like Sandra Bland's, but such disclosures are without parallel in the world of ICE and CCA.
"How did the sock get down his throat?" Ortega said of Deniz-Sahagun's case. "How did it get in there when they had him on psychiatric watch? We won't know until we file a lawsuit."
What keeps Eloy open is a combination of a ton of hard cash and the abstract fear of terrorism. In 2009, still riding the wave of post-9/11 fear, Congress passed a law compelling ICE to detain 34,000 immigrants every day, making ICE the only law-enforcement agency in the United States that must keep a certain number of people jailed. This "bed mandate" represents a tripling of the average number of immigrants detained daily in the mid-1990s, and meeting it requires ICE to detain even immigrants who pose no flight risk, like Deniz-Sahagun. The fact that detention's purpose is not to punish but to ensure appearances in court has a way of getting lost in the conversation: As Senator Richard Durbin put it, the bed mandate's purpose is "protecting the American people from terrorist threats." A bill to overturn it failed in 2013.
Private contractors like CCA and GEO find these circumstances agreeable. Together, they own half the beds in the ICE system, charging the government about $150 daily for each one. In 2014, CCA reported revenue of $1.6 billion, of which $214 million came directly from contracts with ICE. The profit on that revenue was $195 million. Profits are margins; they have to come from somewhere. The deaths at Eloy suggest they come partly from savings on inmate safety. Nor is the situation much different in immigration prisons, which house people who—unlike inmates at Eloy—have actually been convicted of crimes. This February in the Nation, reporter Seth Freed Wessler found 25 cases in which inmates at immigration prisons died avoidable deaths as a result of inadequate medical care.
"We cannot believe that José would kill himself," Rosario said. "The last time I spoke to him, he said, 'Find me a lawyer.' he was an optimist. he believed he was going to win in court."
In the middle of January, I spoke once more with Ortega to check on the status of the case. Wrongful-death suits are taken on contingency, so a lawyer must constantly weigh the potential payout from the government against the man-hours involved in arriving there. If the fight to find out how and why Deniz-Sahagun died was too expensive, it would likely remain a mystery, and responsibility for his death would be assigned to no one. "If I can't get enough information within the next year," Ortega said, referring to Deniz-Sahagun's family, "I'll have to sit down with my clients."
I said that it seemed like a hard way to make money.
"It's like prospecting," Ortega said. "If I strike oil, I'm OK."
I asked how long he'd been doing this.
"Ten years," he said.
"How many times have you struck oil?" I asked.
"Never," said Ortega.
After leaving Eloy, I spent two months trying unsuccessfully to reach Deniz-Sahagun's siblings in Las Vegas. In addition to Rosario, he had a younger brother, Gabriel, to whom the Mexican consulate at Tucson gave my name and number. I didn't hear from him. I would call the consul's press secretary every so often. He would tell me politely that he didn't have news.
Then, on a Friday evening in late summer, I got a call from a Las Vegas number. Gabriel and Rosario were sitting in Rosario's house, the house where Deniz-Sahagun had been planning to stay. They put the phone on speaker. Though Gabriel, who has good English, had been handling most of his brother's legal arrangements, Rosario takes the lead conversationally when everyone is using Spanish.
"We cannot believe that he would kill himself," Rosario said. "The last time I spoke to him, he said, 'Find me a lawyer.' He was an optimist. He believed he was going to win in court."
In late May, the siblings had collected their brother's body from the morgue in Tucson. They had the money to pay for four hours at a funeral parlor in Las Vegas, which held the wake on May 29. When that was done, the body was flown back to Mexico.
I asked whether anything in Deniz-Sahagun's history might explain what had happened. "When we went to the morgue to collect his body," Rosario said, "they asked us the same questions: if my brother had done drugs, if he had vices, if he took medication, if he'd had an operation, any bone fractures. No. Nothing.
"We want to see the videos," she continued. "So we know we're not being tricked." I asked what she thought had happened inside the cell. "They're killing people in there," she said.
Though we had spent time picking over the circumstances of the death and the evidence that didn't fit, there were certain things about the beginning of the story that I had never fully understood. Why, if Deniz-Sahagun feared the coyote, did he run north instead of south? Why run into the hands of Border Patrol when you had no documents?
This time, Gabriel answered. "He felt safer going to the border and begging for help from the authorities there, instead of going to the police in Mexico. He thought the police would be the same as the coyote."
We changed the subject and started talking about Deniz-Sahagun's children. I wondered who had told them about their dad. I assumed it was their mother, Deniz-Sahagun's ex, whom they lived with. The line went quiet for a second.
"They still don't know," Rosario said. They hadn't attended the wake. I asked what they thought was happening.
Deniz-Sahagun's children believe their father is still alive. They think he is living in Mexico with their grandparents. When Rosario visits, as she often does, they ask her to pass him messages. The boys are insistent. They want her to tell him they miss him. They want her to tell him to come play cowboys. Rosario says she will.
This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.