Blog Archive

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Brief stop on forced journey home;Families wait in Broadview for chance to see deportees

By Georgia Garvey
The Chicago Tribune
November 14, 2010

On both sides of the barbed wire at the federal detention center in Broadview, people wait.

There's a bite in the early morning air, and men and women sit in cars, windows cracked and engines running. What they're awaiting — dreading, often — can be the culmination of years' worth of court hearings and bureaucracy: the deportation of their loved ones.

"I wanted him to see his son before he left," Jessica Vargas said as she rocked 7-week-old Abel, her son with Luis Diaz Flores, a 19-year-old man on his way to be deported to Mexico.

Tears streamed down her face. She had been told to arrive from 6 to 8 a.m., she said, to visit briefly with her boyfriend. But when she arrived at 5:45 a.m., Vargas was told she was too late. "People who are here (illegally), they shouldn't be here. I understand that they don't have papers and stuff, but he's doing something. He has a family here. He's working. He's not doing anything wrong."

Sometimes, the soon-to-be deported are leaving the facility, 20 minutes outside of Chicago, to go to far-away nations, places where they don't know many people and barely speak the language. Other times, they're going home, to family they just recently left.

But in every Illinois case, the deportees will visit the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Broadview, a staging house that will be their last stop before boarding a plane at O'Hare International Airport out of the U.S. With the immigration debate boiling over, and the federal government recently deciding to challenge a hot-button Arizona law, plenty of action takes place practically in Chicago's backyard at Broadview, a short drive from the Loop.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently announced a record-breaking year for deportations in the country — 392,000 in fiscal year 2010. The previous year also set a record, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

Napolitano said the increase in deportations is evidence that the Obama administration "takes very seriously the responsibility to enforce the borders and ... immigration laws."

All Chicago-area deportees will make their way through that small, brick building in Broadview, a detention and staging facility that serves a four-state enforcement region that includes Illinois.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 62 percent of those living in the country without legal status are from Mexico and reports that the majority of deportations are of Mexicans. At Broadview, some are returning to Jordan, Guatemala, Honduras and even Cuba.

Vargas brought to the detention center a packet of money and a handwritten letter to give her boyfriend, Flores, before he returned to Mexico, a country he hadn't visited since he was 5, she said. Vargas, 20, said Flores didn't know anyone in the country other than grandparents he hadn't seen since he had left.

"It's been so hard," she said, sobbing, as she described last seeing her boyfriend as he left their Elgin home for his job one morning. He was picked up in a traffic stop, she said, and found not to have a driver's license. "He had told me that he wanted to get married."

Sister JoAnn Persch, a nun who is a member of the Sisters of Mercy, hears tales like Vargas' often and sees many aspects of the deportation process. Persch visits immigration detainees in the McHenry County Jail, one of the three locations in the state where those accused of being in the country illegally are held, and helps spearhead a prayer vigil Friday mornings as the deported are bused away.

"You can't help but (be) caught up in their story," Persch said one recent morning on the sidewalk in front of Broadview, the American flag flying overhead.

It can be tough to find the detention center. Right off Interstate Highway 290, it's tucked away in an industrial park, with no number or name on the front of the building. But a few key hints betray its purpose: the barbed wire atop a fence blacked out with plastic covering, the roving cameras fixed on entrances and exits. The occasional sedan with tinted windows that zips in and out of the gate, which seems to open just for the perfect amount of time to admit the car, closing quickly behind it.

Inside, the atmosphere is more institutional, like a secure hospital ward. In rooms, behind lock and key, men peek out from windows. Sometimes they are shackled, two by two, at foot and hand, facing one of the walls in a corridor. Other times, they lie on molded plastic chairs, covered in gray felt blankets.

More often than not, they are waiting to get their one free three-minute phone call or to contact the consulate of their country of origin.

They wait, ultimately, to step onto the white bus with blackened windows that will take them to O'Hare.

Overwhelmingly, the detainees at the facility are men, said Sylvia Bonaccorsi-Manno, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official. But they rarely cause trouble, she said.

Sometimes, they are convicted criminals, nabbed when law enforcement officials checked their immigration status while they were in prison. Other times they were picked up on minor traffic issues. They can be fugitives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement or legal residents whose status is being challenged by the government.

"This is the last stop before (the detainees) go home and they're free," Bonaccorsi-Manno said. "It's the end of their journey, not the beginning."