For one McHenry County detainee, life inside an immigration detention center is filled with heartbreak, fear and despair

County officials are talking about not renewing the contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs to house detainees at the McHenry County jail.
County officials are talking about not renewing the contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs to house detainees at the McHenry County jail.

Note to readers: This is the second in a three-part series examining McHenry County’s longtime jail bed rental program with two federal government agencies. Some county officials question whether the program should expire toward the end of 2015.

WOODSTOCK – Rosa looks across the table with big, brown, hopeful eyes.

“Do you think I have a chance?” the woman asked as she sat in the library of the McHenry County Jail, wearing an orange jumpsuit and an immediately noticeable desperate demeanor.

Rosa is asking National Immigrant Justice Center attorney Claudia Valenzuela about the status of her immigration proceedings. Valenzuela didn’t know and could answer only in generalities. Valenzuela is not handling Rosa’s immigration case. Besides, at that point, it was anyone’s guess.

Valenzuela is a legal advocate with the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center and filed a complaint on Rosa’s behalf after Rosa alleged she was sexually and physically assaulted while in custody in the McHenry County Jail.

Rosa is not the woman’s real name. The Northwest Herald agreed to grant her anonymity as the alleged victim of a sex crime.

Rosa is a Mexican-born 30-year-old and had been detained at the McHenry County Jail for seven months as she awaited immigration proceedings in Chicago. The NIJC provided Rosa with an attorney who handled her immigration case pro bono.

It’s April at the time of this meeting, and Rosa hasn’t seen her two young daughters, her sister, or her mother since she was taken into detention in December 2013. Her mother and sister also entered the country illegally, and Rosa feared they would draw the attention of immigration officials if they visited.

In an interview with the Northwest Herald, Rosa spoke of life in immigration detention. The heartbreaking phone calls with her two daughters. Her mother’s battle with a grave illness, as she still cares for the girls. Her sister’s grueling work schedule to support the family financially and to put money into Rosa’s commissary account. (Her 23-year-old sister worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at one McDonald’s, then 6 to midnight at another location – day after day.)

Everyday, Rosa thought about life in Mexico. A life she barely remembered. She left the country at 15 years old.

“Every single detainee was getting deported,” she said. “Every time I was looking at them, I would see myself and think, ‘When am I going to be next?’ … I [am] so scared to go back to my country because I have nothing there. All my family is here. I don’t have a house there. If they deport me, I have no money. I don’t have a house. I [have] nowhere to go.

“For me to leave my daughters,” she said, but trails off.

The Northwest Herald interviewed Rosa in the library of the jail. Valenzuela also was present. Meetings with other inmates typically are done via computer screen or the phone. ICE granted the reporter a face-to-face sit down with Rosa. A corrections officer waited outside the closed library door throughout the duration of the interview, but not once entered the room, even when the interview went well beyond the allotted time.

‘A gilded cage’

Staying in the U.S. without proper documentation is viewed as a civil violation, though, often those such as Rosa, are treated like criminal offenders.

“I think [immigration detention] is ethically questionable,” said Carlos Acosta, a social worker and Latino advocate. “I respect that detention has to occur, but I don’t know that there should be a profit motive in it.”

Acosta, for years, ran the McHenry County Latino Coalition before it folded.

He continued: “They’re still persons within the United States, and they still have the protection of the Constitution. They’re still afforded due process. They’re not illegal until a judge decides they committed a criminal act.”

According to ICE statistics, there are an estimated 34,000 people detained each day in facilities scattered throughout the country. Some are intergovernmental agreements, such as the one in McHenry County. Others are privately owned detention facilities.

Although he said the conditions inside McHenry County Jail rank pretty high compared to other detention centers he’s seen, Acosta said this of McHenry County.

“It’s still a gilded cage.”

Sister JoAnn Persch has provided pastoral care at the jail every week for years.

“They’re definitely not hardened criminals,” she said. “The majority of them might have an infraction of the law, but a lot of them don’t. They were picked up some other way, but they have no papers. They’re not criminals.”

According to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University, only half of immigration holds were placed on individuals with any prior conviction.

The overwhelming proportion of detainers – about four out of five – were issued for individuals who had no convictions or, at most, had been convicted of a misdemeanor or petty offense of some type, according to TRAC data.

While Rosa is no hardened criminal, she does have a criminal background. She got a much harsher punishment under immigration law. For her crimes – retail theft, criminal damage to property and burglary – the Dane County, Wisconsin, officials deemed her eligible for two years of probation and released her.

‘It was horrible’

It’s unclear how Rosa’s immigration status was discovered. She herself was unsure, Valenzuela didn’t know, and her immigration attorneys weren’t clear on it either. But what Rosa can recall in vivid details – although it was 15 years ago – was her journey across the United States-Mexico border.

Rosa sums it up in three words: “It was horrible.”

A “coyote” led Rosa and others on a three-day walk through the desert. They concealed themselves in drainage pipes, crouching for hours at a time.

They made it to a mobile home in the desert, where Rosa and 50 others hid out for 30 days. They shared one bathroom. They were not allowed to go outside. They were instructed to avoid the windows.

After about a month, the coyote dressed Rosa in American-looking clothes and drove her and the others to the airport. The coyote pointed to a line on the ground. “One foot over this line and you’re on your own. If you’re caught by border agents, that’s on you,” she was told. A boy in her group was caught.

Rosa eventually was reunited with her parents in Chicago, who already had crossed the border and sent for her.

Advocates say Rosa’s story is all too common.

“Multiply that by five million,” said Acosta, who doesn’t know Rosa, but was has heard similar stories time and time again.

Relief granted

At a hearing before a Chicago judge, two of her daughter’s teachers testified on Rosa’s behalf. It was the first Rosa heard from someone outside the family about the effect her detention had on the young girls.

“They tell the teacher, ‘Can you brush my hair? Because I miss my mommy and she can’t brush my hair,’ ” Rosa recalled of the teacher’s testimony.

Rosa’s immigration defense was granted in May. She is allowed to stay on what’s called a “U” visa. She later was granted a work permit and is applying for a social security card.

Immigration law is a complicated web. There are myriad reasons an immigration judge has to allow qualifying persons to stay in the U.S. They’re labeled “A” through “W.” “U” visas are for survivors of felonious crimes who helped cooperate with authorities. Rosa was the previous victim of domestic and sexual abuse and helped authorities with the investigation.

Rosa considers herself one of the lucky ones. According to ICE statistics, there were 315,943 removals in 2014.

“I see so many people get deported, and I’m scared,” Rosa said at the April interview. “I’m scared to death because I’ve been fighting for six months. It’s hard when you see so many people get deported. I keep thinking, ‘When will I be next?’ ”

Staying strong

In the seven months she was in custody, Rosa said she again was the victim of a crime. A U.S. Marshal inmate on pre-trial custody for bank robbery allegedly made unwanted sexual advances at Rosa. Numerous times, the woman grabbed Rosa’s breast and buttocks.

It all culminated into a confrontation last December when the woman grabbed a lunch tray and swung it at Rosa’s face, pulled her by the hair to the floor and repeatedly punched her, according to McHenry County court records. The woman was charged locally with four counts of battery – two for the alleged beating, and two for the alleged unwanted sexual advances. All four misdemeanor charges were dropped in June.

A complaint was filed with the Department of Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, who acknowledged they were investigating this complaint, but could not comment on an open investigation.

Talking about it, Rosa still gets choked with tears.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and think about it, because I don’t understand still why she hate[d] me the way she did,” Rosa said. “It was so horrible, but I try to stay strong.”

‘Happy to be free’

The Northwest Herald tracked Rosa down in Madison, Wisconsin, for a follow up interview, again with Valenzuela. Rosa’s working 50 hours a week and bringing home about $600 each week managing a chain fast-food restaurant.

She’s reunited with her girls, who still cry when she leaves the house.

“The oldest one tell[s] me all the time, ‘I don’t want you to leave again.’ Every time I leave she say[s], ‘Mommy can I come with you?’ She thinks I’m not coming back. I tell them its OK. Mommy’s not going anywhere.”


Part 1: McHenry County jail rental program with feds hard to quantify

Part 3: McHenry County jail bed-rental program with immigration, U.S. Marshals may hit breaking point

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