WASHINGTON, D.C — “God, this is the last time that I will ever pray to you. After this, no more,” Marco Galdino said, kneeling on his bunk bed inside the Florence Correctional Center, an immigration detention center in Arizona. He prayed for freedom. This was April 2012, seven years after he had last seen the world outside a heavily fortified enclosure.
In 2005, a Salt Lake City, Utah police officer flagged Galdino for failing to use his turn signal. The police officer found out that Galdino had overstayed his 1995 tourist visa from Brazil and turned him over to immigration officials, according to Galdino. He said that he was denied bail because of a previous drug possession felony charge from 2004. After spending seven years in a detention center, a judge cleared Galdino for release on a $10,000 bond. He didn’t have the money. So he prayed. And people fund-raised, but it still wasn’t enough. On the same day in 2012 that Galdino made his threat of despair to God, a woman that he never met pitched in $5,000 to help free him.
Now that he’s out of a detention center and his deportation case is pending in court, Galdino volunteers with a community organization in Tucson, Arizona, where he just started a “Christmas in July” campaign to write letters to immigrant detainees. Due to the revolving door nature of detention centers where immigrants are either deported or released, he said, “You know why I send letters in July? It’s because I may not have that opportunity in December.”
On Wednesday, Galdino came to the District of Columbia as part of a group of activists from eight states to meet with Congressional staff members to discuss eliminating the so-called detention bed mandate. The mandate, or bed quota, is a federal requirement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detain at least 34,000 people per day in detention facilities. At a cost of $159 per day to house one detainee, the government spent roughly $406,000 to lock Galdino away for seven years.
Since 2007, the detention budget language has stated “[t]hat funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds.” But last year, DHS started to back off from that position with a statement from ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen that “ICE does not set quotas.” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson added this March that the “mandate” was to ensure that there were enough beds for immigrant detainees, not that there were enough immigrant detainees to fulfill that mandate. But Christensen also said the agency does set “annual performance goals” and “has the money to deport about 400,000 people per year, and therefore, it does,” according to the Huffington Post.
Galdino doesn’t want immigrants to go through the same situation that he had. “For six years, I never received a letter, not from family, not from friends, nobody. Now I try sending letters to immigrants in detention centers. I make that contact because for me, it felt nice to have an officer call you and say, ‘Hey Marco you have mail!’ It’s a very special day. I would take the paper and think, ‘someone wrote to me.’ I won’t open the letter and [instead] wait for everybody [to sleep]. You can touch the paper, you can smell it. For me it’s very special because someone remembered me.”
Galdino went through tough times in detention. He tried to commit suicide twice, both times ending up in solitary confinement instead. “You have desperation in your life, you tell yourself that this would be your last week in your life. I don’t have family in the United States. My family is in Brazil. I never had contact with my sons or my brothers for the last six years of my detention.”
Galdino pointed out an imaginary space to indicate the size of his detention cell — he said that it was only enough to fit a bunk bed and a sink. “Try living here, walking, talking, reading, sitting, taking [a] shower in the same place. Twenty four hours. I tried [to commit] suicide twice because it’s too harsh of a place. You’re in the same place every day, it was too much for me. I remember the police officers and the food. The conditions were very bad. Sometimes I had to sleep on the floors. They had the AC very, very freezing, or the heat very, very hot. They tried to make your life as difficult as possible inside. Sometimes I had ten people in my cell or two persons. Sometimes you’re locked down for three to five days, no showers, for security purposes.”
“I need to help stop this. They need to stop making bed quotas. I think that detention isn’t the solution. We should have different [ways] to resolve this. We have too many people inside. Maybe we can make these people productive, let them pay taxes [by working]. The big machine is making money for somebody off for keeping 34,000 [individuals] in the center.”
Advocates have called on officials to end the mandate because it could create incentives detain more individuals, and for longer periods of time. As it stands, the Federal Bureau of Prisons pays $5.1 billion to some private prison corporations for immigration detention, with the two largest prison firms raking in massive profits. In recent calls with investors, Corrections Corporation of America assured them that there was a continued “strong demand” for beds and the GEO group told investors that there was a “growing offender population.”
Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL) and Ted Deutch (D-FL) have in the past urged the Obama administration to eliminate the detention bed mandate quota. They wrote in a letter, “such a requirement is contrary to the best practices of law enforcement. Indeed, no other law enforcement agencies have quotas on the number of people they must keep in jail. Eliminating the mandate would bring ICE in line with the best practices of law enforcement agencies, which are to use detention beds based on actual need and the potential risks posed by individual detainees.”