El Paso’s busy immigration detention center: ‘We get them from all over’

This sprawling border city is both a gateway for illegal immigrants and the last stop many see before they are deported.

Just before they are expelled from the United States, many of them are held at the El Paso Processing Center, a razor-wire-rimmed detention complex next to the city’s airport.

The center held 785 detainees in late September. Many are brought here after they are caught trying to enter the country illegally in the El Paso area. Some are flown here from other states before they are bused to the border and deported.

Most come from Mexico. But the center also receives illegal immigrants from across the globe: China, Guatemala, England, El Salvador, Germany, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Nigeria.

“We get them from all over,” Bernard Henderson, a detention operations supervisor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “As a matter of fact, we just deported one from Australia two weeks ago.”

The federal government spends more than $2 billion annually detaining illegal immigrants nationwide, more than double what it spent eight years ago. A report by the National Immigration Forum found the average daily cost to detain an illegal immigrant is $164.

In El Paso, the detainees are issued different colored uniforms based on their criminal records. Red indicates they were convicted of serious crimes, such as murder, rape and/or robbery. Orange uniforms are for less serious offenders, including those who have committed theft or drug-related offenses. Those who have committed only immigration-related offenses wear dark blue.

The detainees have access to a law library and a barber. And they can watch movies, or play games such as Ping-Pong.

Meals are served in a spacious cafeteria adorned with flags from nations around the world. Lunch one day consisted of chicken salad, pizza and cantaloupe slices.

Henderson pointed out a large group of officers wearing helmets and wielding batons and shields. They marched and chanted “Move!” as they practiced in the courtyard in case of a disturbance. Their trainers threw water bottles and shouted, simulating confrontations.

In a fenced-in enclosure in sight of the city airport’s air traffic control tower, several detainees clad in white T-shirts played volleyball. Others crowded around a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle depicting windmills in a verdant field.

Detainees typically stay here for up to a few weeks, longer if they are fighting their deportation in an immigration court.

The detainees also have access to a health clinic and a dentist. For many, this is the first time they are getting such care.

“We can only do so much with them,” said Lt. Jacob Almanza of the U.S. Public Health Service, “because they don’t stay a long time here.”