Interview: Former detainee tells his story

Davis Walden

On Dec. 12, 2016, Jose Torres, a former detainee, sat down with The Maroon at the Congreso de Jornalieros headquarters and told the story of his journey into the United States, detailing the difficulties he said he faced and the conditions he described inside the detention facilities. GEO Group, the operator of the private prison in which he was held, refused to comment on his case, but said they refute any accusation that prisoners are treated less than humanely. This is Maroon reporter Davis Walden’s full translation of that interview.

My name is Jose Torres and I came from my country in 2005 in April. I came through the border of Piedras Negras [a border city in Mexico]. I was stopped by the border patrol and they took me to the detention center. I stayed with them for two days. Within that time, they did a lot of paperwork that gave me a permit for thirty days to continue with my family.

I was eighteen and a half years old and turned 19 in this country. Well, they gave me the permission for 30 days and they left me at the Texas river in that city. They left me in the Greyhound, but they gave me a condition that I couldn’t have my family. I had nowhere to go, and then some people came into the Greyhound. A few people arrived there, and they offered me food and a roof to stay in at a church. I accepted because I had nothing.

I went and I was with them for two weeks. In those two weeks, I helped him clean a mechanic’s workshop that they had, and so I paid them for food and shelter that way. A brother of the church, a pastor, he told me he would help find work, and he took me to a place. He took me to another person who was also Christian. But, I told him that I had a court date to present myself with the papers. He told me, “You don’t know. Let me see the papers.” He started to review the papers and said to me, “Okay, I will keep these for you and when the day comes, I will take you.”

Well, he never took me. Time passed. He took me to a ranch where there weren’t many houses. There were just fields. There I was clearing terrain and cutting trees. I spent like two and a half months, three months, and I had limited access to the city, so I wouldn’t know [where I was]. Well, a man asked me to cut down a tree in front of where we were, because he would see me cutting trees. So I went and I cut it for him. He gave me $400 for that one tree and the other man [the man who owned the ranch] only gave me $100 per week. I took the money that the man had given me and made the decision to leave. Get out of there. Go anywhere. To risk it. That’s what I came to this country for.

So, I was able to get a phone, and I called a taxi, like at 8 p.m., and the taxi picked me up. He said “where do you want me to take you?” But before I called the taxi driver, I called the owner of the house, and I told him I was leaving because he didn’t help me when I needed it. Like with my court date, which I had already missed and I didn’t know what to do. Then, instead of helping me, he tried to instill fear in me and said that they were going to arrest me and deport me. Then I took the decision to risk it and keep moving with my life. I thanked him. I gave him the keys. He wasn’t happy because I was leaving, but I told him I couldn’t continue like this.

The taxi driver asked me where I wanted to go. I didn’t know any places in Houston, because I had only gotten so far before I was taken here [the ranch]. I told him that I didn’t know any place here, so I asked him to take me where I would see people like me who were looking for work. “That’s where I want you to take me.” This was at night. I’m talking eight o’clock at night. The taxi driver said okay, and I got there at 10. Then I arrived and, there, I bought my first little car with the $300 dollars that I had. The car was only good for me to sleep in and, from there, I came here to New Orleans.

So I only lived like 3 or 4 months in Houston. Here [New Orleans] is where I kept my everyday life, making an honest living without asking anything from anyone. I made my home. I had my wife. I had my two daughters.

In 2013, I made a mistake. They had a party at work and I made the mistake of drinking. It was my first mistake, a big one, and I regret it. On the way home from work, I was drunk, and I had an accident and the police arrested me for four days or a week, and they handed me over to Immigration because of the deportation order.

When immigration came, they brought me to an official here in New Orleans. They reviewed my case and asked me to sign something, and I never did. They didn’t press too hard on me that time. They just put me in jail, and they let time pass by so that they could deport me.

Well, thanks to God, I had the blessing of God, my brother-in-law knew the organization Congreso [the Congreso de Jornaleros/Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans]. Through him, they helped me and my family. I regained my freedom. In that time, I was only like 18 or 20 days detained by immigration. Like, 26 days altogether. From there, the day that immigration told me, “Well, we are freeing you. We will send you back to New Orleans,” I didn’t believe it. They were sending me back here. They knew that I lived there, but I had no papers and I thought I was going to be deported. He told me that I was lucky that I was going back to my family. They said I was going back to my family. Well I was very happy.

I returned, but I had the DUI, a first offense. Then the police reviewed my papers and saw that I was not deported. I entered the system like any other person and [the record showed] that I paid my for my mistake. I did everything the judge said: community service hours, I went to classes and I paid everything.

This year [2016], the 27th of April. I had to come every six months to immigration, but the 27th of April and the conviction of DUI… It scared me. It scared me a lot to show up every six months. I’m still fighting my case, for my family. I went, scared, on the 27th. I arrived, and they said they were going to take my picture and that it would only take five minutes. Then I went inside, and they told me that I was under arrest for the DUI, the first offense. That was when I felt a huge weight on me. I thought of my family… and the kids. I have a girl who was born prematurely. She has a problem. She has seizures. I thought of my family. I couldn’t do anything.

They [Immigration] just told me, “sign here, sign here,” because they were wanting to deport me. I made the decision not to sign. I told them to do whatever they wanted, but I wasn’t going to sign. Then they got angry with me. I didn’t sign it.

They moved me from New Orleans to Covington. They put me in federal [prison] for three days while they waited to move me to the other prison called Pine Prairie Correctional Center. I was there [Covington] three days. They got me up, and they took me to there [Pine Prairie]. They left me alone the first week. They said nothing to me.

That week, well two days after I got there, I got sick. I got really sick. I had a fever, but they just left me alone and left me like that. The following Tuesday, they called me in to sign and deport me. It was a nightmare because it was real. I was already physically defeated, but I had the will to keep on fighting. I made the decision and told them that I wasn’t going to sign, that I was going to fight my case. I kept telling them that I was going to fight my case.

They left me alone that day and told me that it was OK. The next week, there was another flight for El Salvador, and they called me again. I told them that I was going to keep fighting my case, that, with time, [if] the people that were helping me told me I wouldn’t have a chance [at winning the case], then I would gladly sign. But if they said there was a chance, then I would keep on fighting my case. By then I had been called twice by Immigration, they saw that I had refused to sign. So they sent me to the embassy. Well, the embassy said it’s the first time and that I should fight.

There was a flight every time. Every time there was a flight, my name was on the list, but I was in this prison. It had a TV and everything, but I was sick and fighting. I was thinking about what I was going to do when I got out of there, because my hands were tied. I couldn’t do much, only fight, but the thing that gave me the strength to keep on fighting was always my family–my two girls. I spent every day making the choice to keep fighting, and I kept fighting. They brought me back to the embassy the following week, and they told me I was wasting my time, that it was impossible.

Well, I told them that it was my life and that I was going to keep on fighting for my family. He told me that it was impossible because I was in prison. I told him that I was already in prison, that they couldn’t put me there again. I told him that I wouldn’t sign. Over the phone, I told him to give me time, and I left.

It was a Tuesday, and that is when the nightmare started. I was bad. Sick. Without a future. An indecisive future, not knowing what was going to happen to me. I was in God’s hands. I was sick and some guards gave you respect, but others would just make you feel worthless. We prisoners, we’re not worth anything. They would say that we are worth as much as dogs. I was so sick, I didn’t understand anything and I didn’t answer anything. At, like, 12 that night I was very sick. It felt like my head was exploding from the fever. I knocked on the window and said that I need medicine. He [the guard] didn’t pay attention. They didn’t care.

We all worked together to get his attention and hit the window very hard, and it worked, and he came up to the cell. I told him I needed medicine or a nurse. He told me that he wasn’t a doctor. We told him that we needed medicine, that we’re sick. He told us he wasn’t a fucking doctor. Then they took me to “the pit,” a place where they take people who fight or behave bad. It’s for convicts. They took me there because I asked for help. I said that they could take me to the pit as long as they gave me medicine first. He didn’t do it. He told me to collect everything and told the others to be ready to get taken down to the pit for punishment. All for knocking on the window to ask for help.

When he came back I told him that we were human beings and not animals, to look at what you’re doing. That if you can’t help us, then to find someone who can. We must have gotten to him a little, because didn’t take me to the pit, like he said he would. He left. He didn’t bring medicine, but some other paper to send a doctor who works 24 hours to help.

The next day I spoke to Congreso, who were helping me, and I told them that I was sick, and that I have been sick for 11 days without medicine because I was a prisoner and that I didn’t have rights. But I had people helping me. Congreso called and they said that I was sick. That day, at 10 in the morning, without having to sign that paper, a doctor came. They took me and gave me medicine. They didn’t do it because I asked. They did it because Congreso intervened and helped me. They called and told them about my situation. That’s when they took me to the doctor and they gave me medicine.

Then, when they gave me the medicine, it was [for] two or three days getting better and better, but they were always wanting to make me sign the papers, to sign, to sign. Then Tuesday came and they called me to deport me. I was on the list. He told me that this was the day, that this was it, and I couldn’t anything to change that. “You have nothing to fight for. You have nothing to fight for. You are lost. You have a DUI charge. You’re leaving, no matter what you do.” I told him that I wouldn’t sign and that I had to keep fighting.

I had a little bit of hope of seeing my family again. It was 7 and the session was over. I told him my situation. I had two days until I was going to be deported. The people from Congreso told me that there was a glimpse of hope, a window of hope. They told me that that plane wasn’t for me.

I was scared, but I had Congreso. They never left my side. Then Wednesday came. I didn’t sleep. I stayed up thinking about what was going to happen. Thursday came. Everyone was getting packed onto the plane and I was feeling bad, so bad. 12:30 came, one, 1:20, and then the officials came in with the list. They started calling people. I was awake and seeing all of the people who were on the list with me. Congreso said I wasn’t on that plane, but I didn’t know. I didn’t believe it. I was wrong in the head. I had that window, a light, a hope that I wasn’t on that list. They kept calling names and I wasn’t on the list. I started crying. I was so happy. I had a little bit more hope. I wasn’t on the list. They were done with the list. That week, my friend left. I wished him good luck, and then he was gone.

Early Friday morning, Congreso, at 7:30 in the morning, came, and I told them thank you for getting me off of that plane. Then I went back and they told me to be strong. I was always strong. I kept fighting to not get deported. Then I kept fighting in prison and, in that time, I paid everything. I did all of the classes, and, at the check, Congreso gave me a lawyer for my record. I got it and I paid it. Then I went to the check, and they were always trying to defeat me, but I didn’t realize just for how long. They cleaned my record. I had 90 days to stay clean, and all that time I was fighting my record, fighting my case, all within prison. It was tough, very tough, because I didn’t have a future. It was uncertain. So when Congreso told me that I had a clean record and that the lawyer did his job and that I had papers, to have faith to get out, I always thanked God and thought of my family. They gave me strength to keep fighting and, thanks to Congreso, I was never alone. They were always with me. They cleaned my record.

One day, in August, at like six in the morning, the officer came and sent me a paper to make copies to give to Congreso. At six in the morning, I got the copies and when I came back it was seven. I slept to relax my mind. At like 10:30 in the morning, the officer came again, and I was wondering what was going on. I had already given my papers and I had nothing to do with them. He simply asked me, “Are you José Torres?” and I told him “Yes” and he said, “Let me see your I.D.” I gave it to him. He left and came back and said “Alright, grab everything. You’re going home.”

When he told me that, I couldn’t believe it because of the situation I was in. I cried. I thanked God. My friends came and grabbed everything. I didn’t touch anything, they got everything. Then… I left. I said goodbye to my friends when I left, and they gave me my papers and told me I was free. I was free. I could go back to my family. Thanks to Congreso, who helped me clean my record. They did the impossible. They gave me my life back. And my family.

My case still wasn’t over. I’m still checking in with Immigration. Every six months I go to the check, but I did the impossible. I can be with my family now. I asked them to forgive me and told them I did every possible thing to get back to them and mend it, like any American would. I asked them to give me a second chance. I’m just a human. I’m not perfect. I had paid everything up to then. I had a clean record. I was still with my family. I’m still going to be going to check-ins with Immigration every six months. I’m not going to fail, because I don’t want them to separate me from my family. From my heart, I did every possible thing, and now I’m with my family. I thank the entire community and Congreso, who never left me alone. Thanks to them I got everything, I got my life back. I’m still here. I can keep fighting my case.