Mayra Maldonado Garcia was at home sending her young daughters off to school in September 2015 when she got a call from her husband in a Portland area correctional center.
“I have little time to talk,” her husband, Cristino Piña Carranza, 37, said in Spanish, explaining he was being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
He’d been arrested by plainclothed federal agents outside of a courthouse in Clackamas County Circuit Court after he went to resolve a citation from a car crash.
This couldn’t be happening again, Maldonado Garcia, 36, thought. It had been eight years since her husband was first detained by ICE and deported back to Mexico.
“Stay strong, don’t worry,” he told her. “I might go to Tacoma. Find me an attorney.”
Most immigrants in Oregon who are detained by federal authorities pending immigration proceedings are sent to a private lockup facility in Tacoma, Washington, about 150 miles north of the Oregon border. Several factors combine to make it harder for detainees from Oregon to successfully fight deportation.
Entire families can face significant challenges when someone is detained in Tacoma — a process that could stretch on for months. Often, the family’s breadwinner is taken, making it difficult or impossible to pay for a lawyer.
Advocates say that having a lawyer dramatically improves the odds a person will win their case, but people facing legal action in immigration court don’t have the right to government-appointed lawyers. And, the three-hour drive can present a challenge for Portland-based immigration lawyers.
The distance also complicates immigrants’ efforts to obtain documents that will help them prove their case. Only about half of the detainees at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center are allowed out on bond while their cases slowly work through the system. And those who do qualify end up facing some of the highest average bond costs of any immigration court in the country: $15,000.
Many without representation
Tacoma’s detention center has a capacity of 1,575 people, according to The Geo Group, Inc., the private company that runs the security center under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Most detainees there come from Oregon, Washington state, Alaska, Idaho and Utah. Some also come from the southern border or transfer in from other states, ICE spokesperson Tanya Roman said.
The facility detains thousands of immigrants each year. However, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to immigrants in Washington state, can only take on up to 300 cases each year because of limited resources, said Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney of the organization’s Tacoma office.
The nonprofit’s lawyers focus on those cases where they can make the most difference, such as those with complex legal issues.
“We’re really trying to do ones where we can move the needle on someone’s chances of having a successful outcome,” Warden-Hertz said.
Another nonprofit, Pueblo Unido PDX, raises money to send attorneys to Tacoma as many as four times a month to meet with people in detention, said Cameron Coval, the group’s co-founder and executive director.
Coval said his group has helped nearly 200 people in detention, some of whom were transferred back and forth between the Tacoma center, the North Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles and facilities in other states.
Federal officials declined to provide the number of Oregon detainees taken to the Tacoma detention center. The Oregonian filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request, but federal agencies typically take months to provide a response.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which adjudicates immigration cases, would not say how many immigrants in the Tacoma detention center are represented by attorneys. The office did provide national data that shows out of the 925,278 pending cases in removal, deportation, exclusion and asylum-only proceedings so far in 2019, 67% of the detainees were represented by an attorney.
Not everyone with a pending immigration case is kept in detention. The government typically detains immigrants if they’re accused of committing crimes, they’ve missed immigration hearing dates or they’ve been issued a deportation order.
Distance makes the difference
Family members and attorneys in Oregon have to drive for hours each way to visit a person in detention in Tacoma.
That’s inconvenient, said Warden-Hertz. On top of that, attorneys must wait to use one of seven confidential attorney rooms.
It’s also challenging for attorneys to obtain photos and documents when a client is in detention, Warden-Hertz said.
Some Portland attorneys, such as Amanda Gray at the immigration law firm Parker, Butte & Lane, try to prepare for hearings in person with their clients, but the travel costs a lot. Sometimes, it has to be done over the phone.
“The detained part is hard for preparing a case,” she said.
Due to a lack of available beds, people are often transferred from Tacoma to other facilities around the country, including the North Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles.
Equity Corps of Oregon helps fill a rising demand for pro bono representation. But to qualify, detainees must have a case in the Portland immigration court, said Stephen Manning, the executive director of the Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit that designs technology for immigration lawyers. For now, the group can’t help people taken from Oregon to Tacoma.
As soon as Maldonado Garcia got off the phone with her husband, she frantically called four lawyers.
Only one offered to take on her husband’s case. And it would come at a price.
Her family ultimately paid $60,000 for the lawyer, who helped her husband gain approval for a bond — at a cost of $7,000 — after he’d spent eight months in Tacoma.
Oregon families seeking legal representation for a loved one in detention often have to look for low-cost options or pay for an attorney completely out-of-pocket.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review said that although people going through immigration court proceedings don’t get government-appointed lawyers, all immigration judges provide a list of pro bono legal service providers during someone’s initial hearing.
A bond hearing alone can cost more than $2,000, said Coval, of Pueblo Unido PDX. The cost for the whole immigration process, not including bond, could exceed $15,000.
At that amount, Tacoma ties with an immigration court in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2018 for the highest median rate for bonds in the country at $15,000, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse-based immigration records data organization. The median bond rate was $7,500 in the first eight months of 2018. A dozen courts in Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere grant bonds averaging $5,000, the clearinghouse found.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security sets the initial bond amount, the immigration review agency said. Homeland Security employs trial attorneys to present the government’s case, while the immigration review office employs immigration judges to preside over the cases.
During bond hearings, the immigration judge can lower, raise or maintain the bond amount set, according to the immigration review office.
Immigration lawyers and advocates say they can’t pinpoint why bond rates vary so widely around the country, but they believe part of the reason is that judges and ICE are given too much leeway when it comes to setting bonds.
Of 2,500 immigration court bond decisions in Tacoma during the first eight months of 2018, 50% of people were granted bond, researchers at the Syracuse University center found. The university’s research from 2016 found that 1 in 5 people granted bond throughout the country remained in detention because they couldn’t afford it.
Families often face other costs. They may pay $1,500 for a mental health evaluation that could help their case, another $1,500 for an expert to testify in a case, about $100 a month for phone calls, and assorted other fees for indigenous translators, shipping documents, filing, records requests and more.
Pueblo Unido PDX helps to supplement some of these costs for people who are detained.
The private company that runs Tacoma’s center pays detainees $1 a day for the work they volunteer to do at the detention center. The state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, filed a lawsuit against the company in 2017, asking the court to compel it to pay inmates the state’s $12-an-hour minimum wage. A federal judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit in August, according to the Seattle Times.
‘Sí se puede’
When her husband was taken into ICE custody in 2015, Maldonado Garcia, a naturalized citizen, didn’t know how she was going to get through it again.
Piña Carranza had been in the U.S. since he was 16, when he crossed the border for work to support his sick father. But in 2007, when she was five months pregnant with their second daughter, he was deported back to Mexico.
He stopped at a gas station as he drove back from Minnesota, where he and three others were looking for work for his construction company. The police officer then followed them and pulled them over. He said they were speeding and asked for his license and documentation. He said that ICE was coming for them.
She believed the stress caused her premature birth. Her daughter weighed 1 pound, 8 ounces when she was born at 25 weeks.
Maldonado Garcia was left on her own with a 3-year-old, a baby in the hospital and $60 in her wallet.
As she recalls, doctors said it was likely her baby wasn’t going to make it. If she did, Maldonado Garcia remembers being told, she’d likely suffer problems all her life. She was in an incubator for four months and she had heart surgery.
With no savings, Maldonado Garcia had to rent rooms in her home to strangers so she could afford rent and put food on the table.
Back in Mexico, Piña Carranza said he was constantly questioned by a group of corrupt local police officers. They asked him where he was from, they asked him for money and they beat him up. They threatened to kill him because he spoke out against the government. The plan was that he and his family would reunite in Mexico, but he was only there about one month before he was so fearful he trekked back to the U.S.
He started his construction business back up and reunited with his young daughters.
Then in 2015, he was again picked up by ICE agents while waiting for the bus outside of the Clackamas County Circuit Court. He told his wife they kept telling him, “You’re going back to Mexico.”
He was taken to a Portland area correctional facility and then to Tacoma. Three days later, another detainee let him make a call to his wife — he hadn’t had the money for commissary or a phone credit.
Maldonado Garcia was left alone again with their two children. The girls would ask if he was coming home in time for their birthdays or Christmas.
“There aren’t words to explain what it’s like to talk to your daughter on the phone and she’d say, ‘Papí, just go,’” he said in Spanish. “I can’t explain that pain.”
Maldonado Garcia prayed to God every night, asking what she could do. She learned how to run her husband’s construction business along with some of his employees to pay the bills.
In May 2016, Maldonado Garcia left her girls with her sister so she could travel to Tacoma for her husband’s bond hearing. They were both unsure if he was going to be able to go. She scraped together $20,000 for his bond from family and friends.
Luckily, the judge granted a $7,000 bond and he was released. Maldonado Garcia went back with her husband to her sister’s house. She said she didn’t tell her daughters where she was going that day to not get their hopes up if their dad wasn’t granted bond.
“I have a surprise for you,” Maldonado Garcia told her daughters. Piña Carranza waited behind a door.
“Is that my papí, mamí?” she said. “Papí came, right?”
Their daughters knew before Maldonado Garcia revealed the news. Piña Carranza came out from behind the door and squeezed both of the girls.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Maldonado Garcia said, “that’s the truth.”
In March, three years and five months into the immigration court process, Maldonado Garcia finally heard her husband won his asylum case.
“After all this, I became a very strong woman,” she said. “It’s not easy. It’s made me strong, but I know it wasn’t just me. I know God had been there with me.”