Six months since President Trump ratcheted up immigration enforcement, some local jails in New England are doing brisk business, housing immigrants arrested by federal agents.
Nearly all five county jails in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that detain immigrants facing possible deportation are filling up beds in increasing numbers and watching millions of dollars pour in from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, according to data recently obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
More than 600 immigrants are detained in the county-run jails, a 28 percent increase over last year.
Immigrants held in these jails in New England also spend an average of 81 days locked up, significantly more time than the national average of 43 days in detention, according to ICE.
While counties see increased revenue under Trump’s new policies, immigrant families face an economic struggle when the breadwinner in the family is locked up, said immigrant rights advocates in Boston.
Last year, while Obama was still president, officials in Strafford County, N.H. spent $450,000 to create a new housing unit that could house more immigrant detainees.
Like most of the five county jails in New England that contract with ICE, numbers and revenue are up. Strafford saw money from ICE climb 50 percent – to $1.6 million -- in the first half of this year compared to last year.
Ray Bower, the Strafford County manager, said the jail is just meeting a rising demand and is not responsible for arresting more immigrants.
“We don’t bring anybody in. While our sheriff’s department might transport them, we don’t initiate the custody,” said Bower.
His county gets paid $83 a day from to lock up an immigrant arrested by ICE. Nearly a quarter of the jail’s annual budget is covered from ICE revenue.
“We treat ICE as our customers. We wanted to provide them a full service so there’s no incentive for us because we don’t have any authority to take anyone in custody. We simply manage those people that are delivered to us,” added Bower.
Oscar Gutierrez landed in the Strafford County jail on May 16 when a father-son fishing trip to the seacoast in Hampton Beach, N.H. with his 4-year-old boy, Felipe, went wrong.
Oscar’s wife, Mirna Gutierrez, eight and a half months pregnant, was waiting for them in the car, knitting, when she saw something wrong with Felipe.
“When I see him come back, running and all scared, I said ‘What’s happening?’” said Mirna Gutierrez, speaking through an interpreter. “[He said,] ’My father was caught by police.’”
Oscar Gutierrez’s violation was fishing without a license. Many offenders pay a $93 fine or get off with a warning. The officer worked for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and called ICE when Gutierrez couldn’t produce a valid ID.
Gutierrez is a 31-year-old immigrant from Honduras, who reentered the US after being deported in 2005. His wife is a US citizen and begged the state officer not to call ICE.
“I showed him my photo ID, my American passport, my social security number, and I told him ‘I am going to give birth any time, please don’t take him,’” said Mirna Gutierrez.
But her pleas failed to dissuade the New Hampshire officer. Oscar Gutierriez said the officer detained him for about an hour, waiting for ICE agents.
“When immigration came, he was handcuffed at the legs and wrist,” said Mirna Gutierrez. “Felipe came and said ‘please don’t take my Daddy away.’”
Whether police should cooperate with ICE – as they did in New Hampshire with Gutierrez – is fueling a regional debate. A week after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that local cops don’t have the authority to detain immigrants for ICE, Governor Charlie Baker pushed back with legislation to let law enforcement hold immigrants with prior convictions of felonies, domestic violence or gang-related crimes.
While the Baker bill focuses on immigrants with serious criminal records, ICE continues targeting all undocumented immigrants. In a 3-month period this year, ICE arrested 335 non-criminal immigrants in New England, more than triple the number caught in the same 3 months last year.
Elena Noureddine, director of the detention program at the PAIR Project in Boston, is seeing the impact as her advocates visit immigrants in Bristol, Plymouth and Suffolk county jails.
“The people that we’re meeting with now have a really, really difficult time being detained and the first thing they tell me is … ‘I’ve never been in jail before,’” she said.
ICE has not explained why detainees in New England spend a longer stretch of time in jail than the national average.
There are several ways that immigrant detainees can leave the jail. They can be deported, released on bond, or let free because they have a strong case for citizenship. There’s also a process called habeas corpus, if they are held beyond a reasonable amount of time with no movement in their case.
Some immigrant detainees just give up, said Noureddine.
“They often go to their first immigration hearing and they tell the judge … ‘I just want a deportation order, please send me back as soon as possible,’ even if they escaped horrible harm,” Noureddine continued. “They’re feeling like they’re being treated as if they had committed a crime, and they just can’t deal with being confined,” she said.
For many immigrant breadwinners who are detained in jails, the length of time creates even more economic hardship.
Mirna Gutierrez worried how she would pay the rent and buy food when her husband, Oscar, was arrested. He works in the construction industry as a sheet-rocker and is the family’s sole source of income.
The Strafford County Jail in Dover doesn’t see any legal aid lawyers visiting the facility like Noureddine’s PAIR Project.
Oscar Gutierrez was detained there for five weeks, full of worry for his wife, who had brain surgery last year and suffers seizures. The birth was difficult. And Oscar Gutierrez wasn’t there to help.
“I was destroyed,” said Oscar Gutierrez. “It was really hard. You want to be there at that moment, those are the best moments in life.”
As Gutierrez relived this painful moment, his eyes welled up with tears. Felipe came closer to his father and leaned in to comfort him. Their future is uncertain. Gutierrez’s lawyer convinced ICE officials to issue a humanitarian stay on his deportation. The next hearing is 10 months away.