CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Hundreds of ICE detainees are being held at the Al Cannon Detention Center, and many of them are asylum seekers who have committed no crimes.
They have come from countries all over the world, not just Mexico. However, they’ve been transported thousands of miles from the ports of entry they used to seek safety in the United States to be held in the Charleston County jail.
“The system is not set up in an easy to understand manner. A lot of these individuals, when we first meet with them, they have no idea where they are. A lot of them entered in California or Texas. They have no idea what the process is. They just know they came to this country seeking asylum, seeking help, and now they are in jail,” said Atenas Burrola.
She is the co-founder and legal director of Mi Maletin. It’s a non-profit organization based in North Carolina, and it focuses on providing resources and support for ICE detainees during their removal proceedings and immigration court hearings.
The group’s work in Charleston County began in January 2019 after Mi Maletin officials found out a population of asylum seekers were being detained with other criminals in the county jail.
“The majority of the people we see here, most of the men, are Central American. They do tend to be from Honduras, from El Salvador, and from Guatemala,” Burrola said. “A lot of the violence we see there, a lot of the persecution that we see there, comes from what in English we call or we translate as gangs, which are the Maras. But which are really much more than gangs because they control huge parts of those countries and of the cities.”
However, they’ve seen a new trend with asylum seekers in recent months.
“About a month ago, we got a lot of Cubans. This is a part of a nationwide trend. We are starting to see a lot of Cubans detained across the country, and they are fleeing the political unrest in Cuba,” Burrola said. “We have a lot of Cameroonians. They are actually anglophile. They are English speaking Cameroonians who are fleeing persecution by the French speaking majority, for being English speaking.”
An asylum seeker must prove he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, according to Immigration Equality.
“This is a relatively new thing happening in Charleston. The first of these men were transferred here in December. Before that, there were immigration related detentions that were happening, but they were people arrested for other reasons,” Burrola said.
Charleston County Sheriff’s Office says thousands of ICE detainees have been held in their detention center over the last five years.
Charleston County makes money on these detentions. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office is paid $55 per day per ICE detainee.
“One of the reasons they are here and the reason the county likes housing them here, to be quite frank, is because it’s bringing money to the county,” Burrola said. “These are individuals who have fled, many times horrific situations that are coming to this country seeking refuge, thinking that this is the place they’re going to be safe and what we are doing is jailing them. I can’t tell you how many clients have told me… ‘I came here seeking help and instead they are treating me like a criminal.’”
ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said Al Cannon Detention center is used to consolidate and hold ICE detainees arrested across South Carolina until they are transferred to an ICE detention center in Georgia. However, that trend changed late last year when officials say they saw a surge in border arrivals.
“In 2018, ICE began using the Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston, S.C., as a staging center to temporarily hold persons awaiting an initial hearing. Following that initial hearing, persons temporarily held at this location for that purpose are transferred to an ICE detention center in furtherance of their immigration proceedings,” Cox said.
The Charleston County 2019 Fiscal Budget reports the sheriff’s office is projecting a nearly $350,000 increase in federal prisoner per diem revenues this year.
“Revenues reflect an increase in the amount of per diem reimbursement from the federal government for ‘holding’ federal prisoners due to the federal government’s renewed interest in detaining inmates as part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” the budget said.
One of CCSO’s objectives for this fiscal year is to maintain a federal prisoner per diem revenue amount which equals 20% of total operating expenditures, and over the last two years the agency has exceeded that goal. Officials expect to exceed their goal for 2019, too.
“Seeing the toll that detention has on these individuals, week after week when we start meeting with them, is absolutely heartbreaking,” Burrola said. “I’ve had clients tell me, ‘you know what, I know I’m going to die if I go back to my country, but I’d rather die in my country than die detained. Because that’s what’s going to happen if I continue being detained, especially when as many of these guys feel they haven’t done anything wrong.’”
Burrola said the Al Cannon Detention has worked with Mi Maletin to help asylum seekers get access to legal advice and services. However, the jail is missing resources these detainees would have if they were housed at a federal immigration detention center, like easy access to phones for the detainees to call interpreters, according to Burrola.
“Ultimately what we would like to see is for this government to stop jailing asylum seekers,” Burrola said. “In a more realistic manner, since that is unlikely to happen, not just because of this administration but the previous administration also housed asylum seekers at a much higher rate than ever before, we want to make sure individuals’ rights are not being violated.”