The Shadow of El Centro: Introduction

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Jessica Ordaz’s The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity. Bounded by desert and mountains, El Centro, California, is isolated and difficult to reach. However, its location close to the border between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona, has made it an important place for Mexican migrants attracted to the valley’s agricultural economy. In 1945, it also became home to the El Centro Immigration Detention Camp. The Shadow of El Centro tells the story of how that camp evolved into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service Processing Center of the 2000s and became a national model for detaining migrants—a place where the policing of migration, the racialization of labor, and detainee resistance coalesced. Ordaz’ book was also featured on our recent “National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month” reading list.

Immigration detention has become daily news across the United States, from cases of death inside detention centers, to the separation of migrant children from their families, to hunger strikes protesting deportation. Currently, hundreds of thousands of migrants sit in migrant detention centers as people across the world isolate to avoid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Detention conditions are so deplorable that in June 2019 U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused Donald Trump of holding migrants in “concentration camps.” She wrote, “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying. Although these national conversations have been critical in exposing the violent realities faced by migrants, the media has emphasized shock at the expense of presenting a more nuanced and historical context. As philosopher Giorgio Agamben cautioned, “The correct question to pose concerning the horrors committed in the camps is, therefore, not the hypocritical one of how crimes of such atrocity could be committed against human beings.” Instead, Agamben asserted that “it would be more honest and, above all, more useful to investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer a crime.” The Shadow of El Centro reveals that antimigrant violence is central to the development of immigration detention in the United States.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently detains migrants in jails, service processing centers, Bureau of Prisons centers, and facilities managed by private prison companies. Human rights violations have been found in all these sites. In 2000, 10 percent of the women detained inside the Krome Immigration Detention Center in Miami, Florida, declared that guards had raped them. Their claims became news when two of the women became pregnant while still in detention. In the words of immigration lawyer Cheryl Little, “A lot of women at Krome don’t feel they can question sexual demands by guards. Basically, they are at the mercy of their offenders.”

That same year, on January 12, 2000, a guard by the name of Officer White attacked Luis A. Ogilvie, a Panamanian migrant being held at the Krome facility. Ogilvie, a disabled man with diabetes who had arrived in the United States in 1980, requested an evening snack, a meal he was entitled to because of his condition. White responded by kicking Ogilvie’s wheelchair, slamming him against the wall, and calling him a “fuckin cripple.” This assault left Ogilvie with severe back pain and bruises. Ogilvie recounted the beating’s lasting effects: “My back snapped during the assault and it is causing me a great deal of pain. I have bruises on my shoulder and my neck still hurts from Officer White’s assault.” Despite the glaring abuse, immigration officials requested that Ogilvie be deported to Panama.

The mistreatment and neglect of detained migrants have also resulted in the loss of life. In 2008 Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng died inside the privately run Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Ng had originally arrived in New York as a teen and overstayed his visa. He married a U.S. citizen, had two children, and worked as a computer engineer. ICE agents detained Ng the moment he completed his final interview requesting permanent residency. Although Ng did not have a criminal record and was in the process of adjusting his status, immigration agents sent him to a detention center. While inside the Wyatt facility, Ng complained of excruciating pain. Detention staff dismissed his claims and accused him of faking his ailments. It was not until Ng’s family sued ICE four months later that he received medical care, but unfortunately it was too late. Five days later Ng died of liver cancer at the age of thirty-four.

Ng’s death was not an isolated incident. In 2009 the Washington Postreported that since 2003 there had been eighty-three deaths of people in immigration custody. More than twenty-four migrants have died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) during Trump’s administration, including seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, two-year-old Wilmer Josue Ramírez Vásquez, and sixteen-year-old Juan de Léon Gutiérrez. These examples of antimigrant violence not only demonstrate the widespread brutality within the system; they also reflect the geographic spread of migrant detention throughout the entire country. Initially, immigration detention camps like the one in El Centro were largely situated along the U.S.-Mexico border region, but today migrants are held throughout the interior, including in states such as Wyoming, Iowa, and Oklahoma. This growing carceral landscape has resulted in the confinement and punishment of more people.

Jessica Ordaz is assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.