Periodically, glimpses of life inside American-run detention centers emerge, usually through the efforts of individuals whose names and faces disappear into history, while the gruesome acts they helped uncover become increasingly stark place marks in history. This was the case with photos of grinning soldiers in Iraq at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and with the prison-like conditions at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas.
Tony Hefner hopes that his revelations of abuse at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center will take their rightful place in history as events that shock people into realizing the need for change, and that he will eventually be able to return to living a life without the weight of history.
Hefner has authored a book, “Between the Fences: Before Guantanamo, There Was the Port Isabel Service Processing Center,” which details the struggles of a guard at an immigration detention facility in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to bring to light the numerous instances of sexual and physical abuse, extortion and intimidation experienced by both guards and immigrants at the facility on a regular basis.
However, rather than being a story of redemption and vindication, the willful ignorance of agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and many others, along with high-ranking administration officials such as Karl Rove and Janet Napolitano, that is detailed in Hefner’s memoir show a system only set up to breed more of the same.
The book opens with Tony Hefner washing the sweat and dirt off his face with a wet washcloth, “trying to rub away the part of my heritage that makes me brown inside.” Hefner, the half-Mexican son of an undocumented immigrant, has passed for white all his life, including during his time as a guard at Port Isabel.
Through a series of flashbacks, he tells of his tenure as a guard and how he first came to realize the various abuses that he “saw destroying and maiming, as surely as any Salvadoran machete,” from his time there in 1981 to the late ’90s, when he continued to follow up on the case.
His first indication that all is not well at Port Isabel is when he begins training for a guard position at the camp to earn extra money for the Hispanic children’s ministry he has started with his wife, Barbara. Carlos L. Ruiz, a director of deportation and detention and a powerful personage at the camp makes open sexual solicitations to the female guards.
Though this leaves Hefner with an uncomfortable feeling, he does not think much of it, but this is just the first he is to witness of such abuses of authority. As the book progresses, Hefner details numerous accounts of rape, sexual assault and intimidation directed against the female guards. The impoverished nature of the towns surrounding the center, however, leaves many of the women with few other employment options to make ends meet.
The position of female guards in the camp also highlights the ambiguity of power play within the loosely monitored center; though many of the women work under sexual intimidation, female guards are also complicit in greasing the wheels so that camp commanders are able to sleep with female detainees.
The immigrant women are promised, falsely, various immigration assistance in return for sexual favors and, Hefner writes, even at times impregnated by immigration officers and then deported.
In a particularly shocking example in a book full of heart-wrenching episodes, an underage South American girl is kept at the camp to dance nude for commanders in exchange for candy bars. Hefner mentions this young girl and the pained look he catches in her eyes as ongoing motivation for his crusade against those who abused her and other immigrant women in the detention center.
The abuses Hefner details range from wanton cruelty – young boys illegally held in the adult facility and sexually harassed and severely injured men thrown into isolation units and left unattended for days – to smaller acts of neglect, such as group strip-searches and the denial of soap or toothpaste. In addition, Hefner gathers evidence of government immigration vans used to carry drugs over the border to Mexico.
The same individuals who perpetrate these abuses use all the powers at their disposal to silence Hefner once it becomes clear that he is determined to note the abuses. He loses his job, is reinstated and loses it again. Meanwhile, the intimidation he experiences escalates from an unfriendly working atmosphere to requests for bribes and threatening, anonymous phone calls. Eventually, the pressure pushes Hefner and his wife out of Texas altogether.
It is difficult to know whether the lack of success in Hefner’s continued appeals are more damning on the human or systemic level. When an investigator from the Office of Inspector General comes to the Rio Grande Valley, he neglects to speak to most of the major witnesses. Many of the female guards’ abuse claims are blocked by a statute of limitations, and when Hefner and other former guards finally make it to court, their cases are dismissed.
In a particularly poignant blow, Hefner is told at one point that the abuses perpetrated by guards at the Port Isabel Center are not the responsibility of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement because they were employed by a contracting security company, not government employees.
The scale of private immigration detention centers has grown exponentially since Hefner’s experience in the early ’90s, and reports show that similar abuses are occurring today, possibly without individuals in the vicinity ready to risk their livelihood to uncover them.
Hefner says he believes that similar abuses are still happening. “Nothing has really changed,” he said in an interview.
In fact, media reports bear this out. In one instance, a guard at a private security company was accused of raping a number of women, and the deaths of immigrants in detention have been receiving increased attention.
Throughout the book runs the compelling thread of Hefner’s own background, and how this affects his relationship with the immigrants he sees daily. Hefner’s Mexican father died before his birth, and he was raised by a stepfather who led him to feel ashamed of his heritage. This struggle manifests itself and develops throughout the book, bringing an often much-needed respite from the litany of painful episodes.
Hefner’s own political views on America’s military-industrial complex and immigration enforcement system may not be the fully developed ones progressive readers would expect from a whistleblowing book – at one point he speaks of the importance of sacrifices by American troops in Iraq – it still remains a strong testament to the human feeling that made Hefner risk, and in fact, lose, his livelihood and dearest possessions to show the world what the words “immigration detention” really mean.
Hefner’s continued fight under the Obama administration, and the appearance of many political figures in the early ’90s who are still active in today’s administration, show the importance of reading “Between the Fences” not only as a testimony to what has been, but as a script of what may still be happening.
“I hope this is something the readers will acknowledge too, when they read this book. They are just as guilty by not saying something and not doing anything as the person who is committing the crime,” Hefner said. “America needs to lift her skirts high enough to see what is going on under her own feet.”