Alexander Martinez says he fled from homophobia, government persecution and the notorious MS-13 gang in El Salvador only to run into abuse and harassment in America’s immigration detention system.
Since crossing the border illegally in April, the 28-year-old has bounced between six different facilities in three states. He said he contracted COVID-19, faced racist taunts and abuse from guards and was harassed by fellow detainees for being gay.
“I find myself emotionally unstable because I have suffered a lot in detention,” Martinez said last week at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. “I never imagined or expected to receive this inhumane treatment.”
He’s among a growing number of people in immigration detention centers nationwide, many of whom, like Martinez, have cleared their initial screening to seek asylum in the U.S.
The number of detainees has more than doubled since the end of February, to nearly 27,000 as of July 22, according to the most recent data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s above the roughly 22,000 detained last July under then-President Donald Trump, though it’s nowhere close to the record in August 2019, when the number of detainees exceeded 55,000, ICE data shows.
The rising detentions is a sore point for President Joe Biden’s pro-immigration allies, who hoped he would reverse his predecessor’s hardline approach. Biden campaigned on ending “prolonged” detention and use of private prisons for immigration detention, which house the majority of those in ICE custody.
“We’re at this really strange moment with him,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, which advocates for ending immigration detention outright. “There’s still time to turn things around, but his policies so far haven’t matched his campaign rhetoric.”