Family's saga highlights kinks in immigrant detention system

Pedro Guzman and son Logan in 2008.
Pedro Guzman and son Logan in 2008. Photo courtesy of the Guzman family/MCT

WASHINGTON — Logan Guzman likes to pretend he's a superhero. One week he's Spiderman. The next he's Batman. Whichever hero he embodies, the 4-year-old's goal is always the same: He wants to save his father.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Logan's dad, Pedro Guzman, 30, in front of the family's Durham, N.C., home on Sept. 28, 2009. Logan and his mother, Emily, could only look on.

"I was scared, but in the back of my mind I just felt like everything would eventually be OK because I was a citizen and he was married to me," said Emily Guzman, 33, a mental health therapist who was born and raised in the U.S.

Nearly 19 months later, Pedro Guzman is still in immigration custody after multiple requests for release on bond were denied. He has two misdemeanor marijuana-possession charges from 1998 on his record. Because of that he's considered a flight risk. So he waits.

ICE detained 383,524 immigrants in 2009, according to its most recent annual report. Detention facilities consist largely of county jails and privately contracted detention centers.

Pedro Guzman sits in a cell at the large-scale Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., more than nine hours from his family in Durham and two hours from the Atlanta office of his attorney, Glen Fogle.

Revisions announced in 2009 aim to give detention facilities more federal oversight, but critics say the changes aren't moving fast enough.

The fractured network of detention facilities, often located in remote, rural towns, means that many detainees never speak to lawyers.

"Unlike in the criminal system, where if someone can't afford a lawyer they're appointed one, in the immigration system you have a right to a lawyer but you have to find and pay for one yourself," said Tara Tidwell Cullen of the National Immigrant Justice Center, which provides legal services and advocates for immigration policy restructuring.

Even if detainees have the resources to find lawyers, the isolated locations of many detention facilities put attorneys financially out of reach, Tidwell Cullen said.

Plans to house detainees in areas such as Texas and Florida that see a lot of immigration cases are in the works, said Nicole Navas, an ICE spokeswoman. The agency's objective is to realign detention resources and keep detainees closer to their families and lawyers.

Emily Guzman can afford a lawyer. Many detainees can't.

Guzman's mother and grandmother pay all of her husband's legal fees. She estimated the cost at $14,000 so far, but said it could higher.

Add in travel expenses, application fees for immigration forms and the cost of counseling for Guzman and her son, and the expenses soar.

"If it wasn't for them, we would probably be out of the country by now," Guzman said of her mother and grandmother.

A Guatemalan citizen, Pedro Guzman entered the U.S. illegally with his mother when he was 8, but he was later granted a work permit.

Since he entered as a minor, his immigration status depended on his mother's. When she was denied permanent residency in 2008, his immigration status was invalidated. Immigration services sent him a notice to appear in court, but to the wrong address, a mistake that the immigration office later took the blame for.

When Guzman failed to appear, they ordered him deported.

Guzman learned of his deportation order a year later, when immigration services denied his work visa renewal.

"If we would have sent a lawyer with his mother, she would have been granted permanent residency," Emily Guzman said. "Then we wouldn't be in this mess, I know we wouldn't."

The price for the government to hold Pedro Guzman is also steep.

Detaining an immigrant costs $122 a day, according to a statement that John Morton, the director of ICE, made to the House Appropriations Committee last year.

That's $72,712 to detain Guzman from his arrest till a hearing May 16, when a judge will decide whether he can stay in the country.

Plans to implement alternatives to detention programs have seen little progress since early last year, even though the alternatives cost significantly less. The most expensive alternative program has an estimated price tag of $14 per detainee per day, according to a statement released by Morton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The cost per detainee increases each time they're transferred, said Navas, the ICE spokeswoman.

Plans to implement alternatives to detention programs and other aspects of detention overhaul continue to be delayed.

Emily Guzman waits.

She waits for May 16. She waits for the day when the guards at the detention center go back to being strangers.

"One of the officers said this past time that we visited, she said, 'It seems like we're watching your little boy grow up,' " Emily Guzman said with a sigh. "I was like, you pretty much are."

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Sheehy, a graduate student in journalism, covers immigration.)


Tara Ammons Cohen keeps fighting deportation to Mexico

Federal immigration crackdown may cost California nursery

Supreme Court may head for split ruling on immigration law

Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington