When immigrant rights and reproductive justice activist Alejandra Pablos entered Eloy Detention Center in Arizona on March 7, she had no idea when she would next see her family and friends again. The first time she found herself in Eloy, in 2011, she was held for two years.
“I was really scared,” the activist recalled. “I remember my mom, I told her that I was going to be detained [again], and she told me: ‘You told me this wasn’t going to happen. I don’t have two more years to give them.’”
This time, it didn’t take two years. On April 19, just a little over 40 days after Pablos was detained at Eloy after a routine check-in with immigration officials, a federal immigration judge granted her an $8,000 bond for her release. But Pablos’ own story doesn’t begin or end at Eloy, and neither will her activism. Her arrest and detention only adds to the growing number of stories of aggressive and callous policies by immigration authorities in the United States—and she is more driven than ever to fight back.
Deportations have actually decreased since President Donald Trump took office, perhaps because the procedure involves a lengthier process of going through the courts, but arrests of immigrants have jumped exponentially. In 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported a staggering 41 percent increase in arrests of undocumented immigrants over the past year—due, in large part, to the high number of arrests of immigrants without a criminal background. Non-criminal immigrant arrests jumped by 171 percent in 2017; in comparison, only 17 percent of immigrants arrested had a criminal record the year before.
Pablos’ own background is complicated. The activist—who has worked with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the abortion storytelling program We Testify, and the Latinx and Chicanx political organization Mijente—previously held legal permanent resident status. In 2010, she was convicted of driving under the influence in Arizona, and consequently had to serve time in both prison and in Eloy. The DUI conviction, a felony in Arizona, made her subject to deportation—and as a result, since her release from detention in 2013, Pablos had been ordered to check-in with ICE in Arizona every three months. The visits continued as the years passed, even after she had moved to Washington, D.C. for work, forcing her to repeatedly come up with travel funds so that she could periodically return to the Southwest and remain in ICE’s good graces.
But eight years later, Pablos’ detainment and detention involved nothing criminal. This year, Pablos was detained after leading protests for immigrant justice.
“It was anywhere from 30 to 40 people there. It was not a protest where we were trying to get arrested or for federal folks to be arrested. We were at a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) center in Virginia in Chesterfield County,” she explained to Ms., recalling the January 2018 demonstration that led to her arrest. “We were specifically trying to speak to one of the officers who had [been involved in] these deportations. These would be silent raids, raids at home and breaking into homes.”
Pablos wasn’t the leader of the demonstration; Mijente described her role as simply “leading chants at a peaceful protest.” But speaking into a microphone definitely made Pablos’ presence known at the site, especially to DHS agents who arrived on the scene not long after the demonstration began. The protestors weren’t initially intimidated—they believed they were simply practicing their First Amendment rights. The moments following, however, passed in a blur.
“All I remember is being charged against, [the DHS officer] just came at me and I guess he wanted to arrest me,” Pablos told Ms. “It was a lot of noise and confusion, but he just put me under arrest. I remember people yelling: ‘What did she do? What are you doing? She doesn’t have to listen to you’ … [The officer] grabbed me and threw me on the floor. I remember having bloody knees, my nails were broken—I think I had three missing. I was on my knees and on one hand, the other, my left hand, he had twisted it at the elbow area. He was just like really being aggressive and not giving me any explanation as to why he was arresting me and silencing me that day.”
The DHS officer arrested no one else at the protest that day. Pablos felt targeted for being outspoken—which was later confirmed by the DHS officer himself. “He did later mention to me that he knew arresting me, because I was the loudest, that it would kind of diffuse the whole protest in general,” she explained. “So, the goal was to try and silence all of us, not just me.”
And yet, Pablos’ arrest confused even local officials in Virginia, who seemed unsure as to why she was even in custody. Eventually released from the arrest, Pablos didn’t initially think this incident would lead to another detention, but she felt uneasy knowing that ICE had her home address. Sleep, she explained, became difficult.
Weeks later, Pablos learned that her deportation officer in Tucson had been contacted by Virginia ICE; they wanted to pick her up. As her next check-in with ICE in Arizona approached, Pablos decided to prepare for the worst. Recalling the frigid temperatures of the detention center, she had her sister-in-law pick up warm clothes for her. These freezing holding cells—commonly referred to by many immigrants as the hielera, Spanish for icebox—are often seen as a particularly cruel form of punishment. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, however, has denied that they purposely keep their facilities cold. “How cold it is,” she told Ms., “I remember I just wanted to die.”
On March 7, during her check-in, Pablos’ concerns came true. She was incredibly scared as she headed back to Eloy; years after her first detention, its reputation had only worsened. In 2016, the center saw its 15th death since 2003, making it the deadliest immigration detention center in the country; to make matters worse, just a week prior to Pablos’ detention, the Supreme Court ruled that federal law does not require immigrants to periodic bond hearings, thus potentially opening the door for indefinite detentions.
But fear, and the looming prospect of indefinite detention, didn’t stop Pablos’ activism. “There was a part of me that was really scared,” she said. “There was a part of me who had to remember who I was and that I was a resister and a bruja, and I’m going to make sure that I get out. I am going to fight to free my body.”
Inside the center, Pablos talked with her fellow female detainees about their treatment, their rights and what they deserved, especially as immigrant women. “They were super excited to meet an activist,” she remembered. “Having abortion conversations were so great in there. Abortion and criminalization conversations—it was like the first time the women had heard language that actually supported them and understood them, and knew where they came from.”
Many of the women in Eloy were in desperate need of help. They were survivors of domestic violence and drug abuse; others were simply mothers who didn’t have the appropriate documents. Eloy and the immigration system as a whole, however, didn’t appear to care about their stories.
“There’s never actual treatment, there’s just criminalizing right off the bat when these women were making the best of the choices they had and the resources they had in their lives, you know?” Pablos said. “So, who I found was working people who had been just trying to stay above water and they had been just caught. And they are catching us more and more—they are catching us walking down by the park if you just look brown and illegal … It’s just really tough to see that the people there are also used to this.”
In talking with the other detainees, Pablos found that they also struggled to see how they could and should be treated better—whether that was through, for instance, child care support, the ability to obtain a driver’s license or domestic violence coaching. “People aren’t actually living and thriving and prospering,” she declared. “They’re just surviving and trying to stay out of the cages in this country.”
Even though the conversations were difficult, talking with the other detainees helped Pablos get through her detention. Since her previous stay in Eloy, conditions within the center had indeed declined: the activist claims it was being run more like a prison, and even joked that some state and federal prisons might have better conditions. Thin mattresses, dirty water and harshly restricted visits, even with family, were just some of the punishing aspects of daily life in the detention center. The food, Pablos described, was “disgusting” and lacked any nutritional value—a complaint not uncommon among other detainees. Just months prior to Pablos’ detention, the magazine Edible Baja Arizona reported Eloy detainees eating mystery, sawdust-like meat, watery oatmeal and overwhelming amounts of starches such as potatoes, bread and pasta. Inmates recalled discovering, on multiple occasions, worms in their oatmeal or mold on their bread. Fresh fruit or vegetables were almost never an option. (ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe has rebuked the suggestion that there was anything wrong with the meals offered at the center.)
To make matters worse, lack of transparency beset the center. During her previous detainment at Eloy, Pablos recalled knowing the warden, the chief of security, the ICE staff and the supervisors from CoreCivic, the private company that manages—and profits from—the center. This time, Pablos said she never met any of those people. When maltreatment or other issues arose within the center, she felt there was little to be done to actually address the problems, and no point person to seek out for solutions. “I couldn’t complain or voice my concerns and even when I did send a form out, like filled out some sort of form, it was hard to uncover any evidence that I ever sent anything out,” she explained. “You can’t really hold anyone accountable if you don’t have any evidence, right?”
Support groups offered within the center also didn’t offer much help, and a visit to the doctor was only possible during 5 and 6 a.m.—even if a person felt sick the afternoon or evening prior. In contrast, detainees previously could put in a request for a visit at any time and the doctor would visit them. “I remember my roommate, she had problems, bleeding from her rectum. I remember she was crying one day and it was like 4:30 p.m. and she wanted to go the doctors and they didn’t let her go. They didn’t let her go and she cried herself to sleep,” Pablos explained. “I tried helping her write a complaint but we never were able to make a copy of that [and] we never had a response either. It seemed like the medical contract was mostly like, let’s keep them going, keep their bodies just hanging in there until they’re out of here. They don’t want to really fix you because you’re not really supposed to be there. They’re trying to deport you.”
Even pregnant women faced the same strenuous conditions. The Trump administration officially ended a policy in December 2017 that allowed for the release of pregnant women from detention while their cases were pending—and since that change, over 500 pregnant women have been detained. Pablos, during her own detention, became aware of at least three pregnant women held at the Arizona center. “It’s not even healthy for us,” she observed, “and we’re not carrying another life in there.”
Eloy may have a reputation that proceeds it, but it isn’t the only detention center besieged by this dysfunction or inhumanity. Medical negligence has festered at other detention centers as well: In May 2018, Roxana Hernandez, a transgender Honduran woman who was a part of the large caravan of migrants from Central America that received much media attention, died in custody after she was held in the hielera for five days without any medical care; in 2016, a man held at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center died from pneumonia after his family claims the center’s staff failed to treat him. (In 2010, a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that detainees at Otay Mesa were “routinely subjected to long delays before treatment, denied necessary medication for chronic illnesses and refused essential referrals prescribed by medical staff.” ICE, at the time, agreed to revise its medical policies.)
Despite the inhumane conditions and uncertainty of being in detention, Pablos kept her head up. Talking to the other detained women, as well as her friends and family outside the center, helped immensely. Outside of Eloy, organizers were fighting fiercely for Pablos. Not long after she was detained, Mijente and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health created a petition calling for her release and rallied for people to show their support for Pablos across social media platforms. The petition, which is still live, features over 24,000 signatures. The support gave Pablos strength: “If everybody outside was fighting,” she noted, “I had to keep going.”
The persistent organizing also won Pablos her freedom. “All of the letters of support really made a huge difference,” Jacinta Gonzalez, field director for Mijente, said in an announcement. “The judge made a joke that there were no more trees or paper in Tucson anymore. You could definitely see that he was impressed by the amount of support, of folks coming out.”
On April 19, Mijente organizers, supporters and Pablos’ friends and family—many who had traveled across the country—gathered together and cheered in the dusty Arizona desert, not far from the detention center, to await her release. “We are really grateful and that’s just a testament of the community,” Pablos’ brother, Jesus Magana, said at her release. “It’s been rough the last several weeks, for sure, but at no point have we felt alone. We are so grateful for everybody.”
When Pablos finally arrived, the moment quickly turned bittersweet. The activist smiled, laughed and even broke out dancing to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow”—but as she went around the crowd, embracing everyone there, she broke down in tears.
Pablos’ release doesn’t entirely resolve her situation. She still is wrapping up court proceedings in Virginia regarding her arrest in January—and despite all the years that have passed since her DUI, her criminal record means she continues to be at risk of deportation. Mijente hopes a pardon from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey would help the activist remain in the U.S. with the rest of her family, and has even launched another petition calling for such.
In the midst of all the uncertainty she faces, Pablos nevertheless continues to stand up for her community and for immigrant rights. She launched a new web series with Mijente called “Chinga la Migra” to highlight conditions within detention centers across the country—and she has shared not only her own story, but the stories of the women she met in Eloy with publications including Democracy Now!, Rewire.News and Latino USA.
Even as the numbers of people in detention centers surge, as children remain separated from their parents and as other immigrant activists also find themselves detained and even deported, Pablos, through her own relentless spirit, remains deeply committed to her advocacy work.
“Nothing has ever just been given to black and brown people—we’ve fought for this,” she declared. “It’s going to be tough, but we’re here to resist. We’re not going anywhere.”