Culture & Conversation Immigration

Alejandra Pablos, Asylum Seeker and Reproductive Justice Advocate, Speaks Out

Tina Vasquez

"We need to make sure that vulnerable people aren’t even near the police and if the police want to arrest or detain a vulnerable person, the whole crowd needs to go," Alejandra Pablos told Rewire.News during a recent interview. "They can’t arrest all of us."

Last week, Alejandra Pablos spoke with Rewire.News about her experience being arrested at a peaceful protest in January, her recent detainment at Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center, and the work she wants to do moving forward for immigrants in the United States with criminal records. 

Five years ago, the reproductive justice and immigrant rights advocate was placed in deportation proceedings after a drug-related arrest and DUI charge in Arizona, a state notorious for passing anti-immigrant laws and doling out harsher sentences for immigrants. Pablos was a legal permanent resident at the time, but the arrest and subsequent charge stripped her of her status and landed her in Eloy, notorious for in-custody deaths and human rights abuses. 

Her detainment at Eloy from 2011-2013 politicized her, she told Rewire.News. In the years since, she has become an activist and community organizer, most recently working as the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network field coordinator for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) and a member of We Testify, an abortion storytelling leadership program of the National Network of Abortion Funds. Pablos also works with Mijente, a social justice organizing network.

In her advocacy work, Pablos has highlighted “crimmigation,” the system in which immigrants are funneled into the immigrant detention system from the criminal justice system. She also has been living through the effects of this system. In March, after a check-in with ICE in Tucson following her January arrest in Virginia during a peaceful protest against deportations outside of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Pablos was detained and once again found herself in Eloy despite having a pending asylum case. She would spend more than 40 days in detention—a time, she told Rewire.News, that she found personally challenging, but also affirming. Pablos made deep connections with other detained women, discussing her work with them and how she both personally and politically seeks to complicate narratives surrounding abortion and immigrants who have criminal records. 

On April 19, Pablos was granted bond and released from detention, but her legal battles continue. Pablos is unsure of what will happen next. While she fears returning to detention, or worse, being deported, she won’t be silenced. “If everything turns out OK for me and I make it out of this, I won’t stop going to protests,” Pablos told Rewire.News. “They can’t silence me. They can’t scare me into being quiet. But I also know I have to be more careful, and that’s what I would tell other activists.”

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Here is Pablos in her own words.

I was the only activist targeted that day [in Virginia], but I wasn’t the only one on the mic and I wasn’t the leader of the protest. I think it was my sharp tongue. The officer said I was the loudest, but you just can’t arrest someone for being the loudest. The officer knew that arresting me would diffuse the protest.

Getting arrested that day was a shock to me. It definitely wasn’t part of the plan. I remember bits and pieces, like everyone looked scared for me because the officer wouldn’t let go of me. And this wasn’t local law enforcement; this was DHS. My knees got bloody, he twisted my arm. My nails broke. I wasn’t running away from him; I was just confused and my impulse was to pull away from him and not let this man I didn’t know grab me. He aggressively arrested me without a warrant and I knew what this would trigger. I knew ICE would come for me. I was scared of sleeping at my house for two weeks straight.

Anytime I go to a protest, I’m aware of the ramifications. But that day, I was looking at my community at the time of my arrest thinking, “Come with me.” I was looking at my comrades, who knew my history, and with my eyes telling them I couldn’t get arrested. I just kept thinking, This is it. This is what’s going to get me detained again. I also remember thinking that officials can do whatever they want to me once I’m in custody. I kept asking the officers with DHS, “Did I hurt your feelings? Why are you arresting me?” I was basically trash talking all of law enforcement in general. As they were taking me off, I told the officers I didn’t want to go with them and they said, “Why, are you scared?” I said, “Because you’re cops! You kill people and rape women.” No one could see where they were taking me. It was triggering to me. They could have done whatever they wanted to me.

Pablos (center) is comforted by her mother (left). Courtesy of Alejandra Pablos

Weeks later when it became clear I was going to be detained, I asked my sister to get me warm clothes because I’d been to Eloy before and I was trying to prepare for the worst. It’s very cold when you get detained—that’s why people say you’re in the “icebox.” My mom was really scared and upset about me going in again because I’d been detained before for two years. She said, “I don’t have another two years to give them.”

She didn’t want me to go back and I didn’t know if I could do it again either. But I also knew I couldn’t run away because it would ruin any chance I had of becoming a resident again. So I turned myself in after court. That was my way of saying: I’m here to stay. I felt it was a powerful step to take.  

What’s really tough about the situation is that when you’re in ICE’s hands, you don’t know when you’re going to come home. It’s not like the regular criminal justice system. You can be detained by ICE indefinitely. They can hold you without a bond hearing. You may never go to court. That’s how it is for a lot of people.

There were women I met inside who did have court dates, but they were set for 2019. Instead of letting them out until then, they were detaining them, keeping them from their families. A lot of times, their only “crimes” were being undocumented survivors of domestic violence or substance abuse. Most of them were non-violent and hadn’t been charged with any violent crimes. They’re not a threat to society.

There are a couple of [advocacy] groups working inside Eloy—Casa Mariposa and the Florence Project—but they just provide legal aid. Casa Mariposa provides some support to a very small percentage of women, but the facility offers no support groups for the women. That’s what many women talked to me about, needing support groups for survivors of domestic violence and drug abuse. There is a drug treatment class you can take using a packet where you would get a certificate for completing it, but some women told me they got the certificate without ever completing the packet. It wasn’t even a class with a professional or talk circles.

Part of the work I want to do going forward is working with local organizations to make sure domestic violence survivors groups are happening in Eloy. So many of the women in detention are survivors and they’re in our own backyard here in Arizona where immigration is, like, the issue, but we’ve turned our back on them.

In the five years since I’d been at Eloy, they made the facility even more like a prison and there was absolutely no transparency anymore. Before, you could see the warden of the facility, you could access ICE officers to talk to. Now, you never see the warden; you don’t know who the higher ups are. You couldn’t talk directly to ICE; there was no [detainee grievance] form. There were some forms available for immigration cases, but most of the paperwork I saw was in English. No one knows how complaints are processed there anymore, or where they go. Information, forms, this stuff is hard to come by and if you ask too many questions, women are retaliated against and they’re intimidated by the guards.

Most of the guards only speak English. There weren’t a lot of bilingual people employed at Eloy. I was one of the only people who knew English well, so there are a lot of language barriers for women inside. At the orientation they make everyone attend, they make you sign something at the end and they [coerce] the women to sign it, but they won’t because they’re afraid they’re signing their own deportation order. The women don’t want to sign anything they’re given because it’s not in their language and they’re afraid of what they’re trying to make them sign. No interpretation is offered to them.

The food is so horrible in detention, and the schedule you have to follow just to eat is weird. Breakfast is at 5 a.m., but if you want to eat, you have to get up by 4:15 a.m. The last meal of the day you get is at 5:30 p.m. So, you’re hungry a lot, especially because the food isn’t nutritious in any way.

The medical system also doesn’t make any sense. Before when I was there, you put in a request to get medical treatment. Now if you want to see a doctor, you have to go between 5 and 6 a.m. My roommate had issues that required her to see a doctor—they gave her the wrong medicine—and she started bleeding from the rectum. They tried even more medications, it’s like they were just guessing what would work.

Other women had teeth extractions and weren’t given any antibiotics or pain medication. One day, there was a woman crying because she was in pain and wanted to see a doctor. She asked me to translate for her. It was around 5 p.m. We approached a guard and they asked why she didn’t go to sick call that morning. She said it was because she wasn’t in pain that morning. The guard then asked her if she drank water. She’s crying. She’s in pain. She needed a doctor, and this guard is telling her to drink water. That’s what they tell a lot of the women when something is wrong: Go drink water. And plus, why is a guard trying to diagnose a woman asking for medical care? They did nothing for her; they refused to call a doctor and they just told her to go to sick hall the next morning. What if you get sick outside of the hours of 5 to 6 a.m.?

While I was there, I saw a woman cut herself multiple times. Staff at the facility blamed it on her being “a cutter” and brushed the incident off. As far as I know, she never got the therapy she required, there was no follow-up from medical. No one from the unit staff talked about it; there was no conversation about trauma. There was all this blood and no one talked about it. A lot of us thought she was attempting suicide. I believe the conditions of the jail and her immigration case triggered her to hurt herself, and the bottom line is that she cannot be safe in there. She needs to be released.

Everything gets brushed under the rug. There is so much medical neglect. [The private prison company operating the facility,] CoreCivic wipes its hands and says ICE has a different contract for medical. That’s why nothing gets done, they are working in silos. Everyone hands the problem off to someone else and it just goes in circles. How could any of this work cohesively if there are different companies contracted for different things and they all have different processes and aren’t on the same page about anything? It’s designed to be chaotic so it’s harder to hold anyone accountable.

We’re forced to have horrible hygiene in there. Guards hoard shampoo like they’re the ones who bought it. They barely give us the bare necessities. When we get underwear, it’s stained and dirty. Countless women are using the same underwear that’s not being properly washed, and the women who don’t speak English can’t say anything because no one understands them and they’re afraid.

You can’t demand clean or new underwear, you can’t complain about how you’re being treated in those circumstances—and if you do, guards give you write-ups. You get in trouble for washing things in your room, even though we know they wash our clothes at the same time they’re washing rags and mops. It’s a private detention center. They treat us however they want.

And there’s no carbon copy of any paperwork. You have no proof that you are talking to guards, making requests—that you are communicating your pain, your anger, your discomfort. That’s why at the end of the day, so many women just quit. They feel like, “Well, this is just how it is.” They start to think this is how it’s supposed to be for them.

So many of these women came to the United States for help, but they’re treated like they did something wrong. One woman at Eloy was actually working with deportation officers to leave and be deported. She wanted to leave, she signed her papers to leave, but she was still being detained for no reason. Our bodies are profitable to ICE and that’s the only thing they care about. We’re just bodies being held indefinitely for profit.

Something that got said a lot by women at Eloy was that they were upset they were being treated like “criminals,” even though they didn’t do anything wrong. I always have a difficult time with that framing. I’m what they call a criminal. I have a criminal record, and I know that I don’t deserve to be detained. “Criminals” don’t deserve the conditions in detention centers; they don’t deserve to be ripped from their family, stripped of their rights, denied medical care and nutritional food—nobody does.

In Arizona where I was arrested, it has the highest Latino incarceration rate in the country. The female incarceration rate in Arizona has grown twice the rate of men. The state spends more on prisons than anything else. What is happening to me, what’s happening with my case, is a direct result of crimmigation. The charges I got would have been a misdemeanor in any other state, but in Arizona they are felony and deportable [offenses].

In detention when women would say, “They’re treating us like criminals,” I used it as an opportunity to talk to them about the ways immigrants are criminalized; I talked about crimmigation and how the criminal justice system funnels us into the immigrant detention system. I talked to them about the stigma we place on people with criminal records. I explained that “criminal” shit is just rhetoric. When the women would say, “We’re just trying to work and take care of our kids, we’re not criminals.” I would tell them that in the eyes of the state, they are criminals. Being undocumented is a crime. “You’re a criminal too,” I’d say. “Family reunification is a felony.” It helped them understand that the reason we were all there, the reason we’re in detention, is because in this U.S. immigration system we’re all criminals for not having a certain piece of paper.

I hope that I can help people understand we need to talk about all of this differently. People with criminal records don’t deserve detention either; it’s inhumane. We’re people too. No one in the system deserves to be treated this way. This is something the movement as a whole has to get better about. People with criminal records in the movement constantly have to defend themselves. If immigrants don’t want to be seen as criminals, does that messaging mean that if I have a criminal record, I deserve whatever ICE wants to do to me? This is rhetoric from the “war on drugs” and it’s been effective to the point where it’s infected our community, but all of us have “criminals” in our circles. I think for some of the women in Eloy, this was the first time they were thinking about this messaging critically—or a lot of the messaging we’re taught.

I told the women that I’ve had four abortions. They told me they never met someone who was OK with saying something like that out loud. Or someone who says I’ve been criminalized. I have felonies. I’m going to talk about this shit without shame. I’m comfortable talking about these things; I want other people to get comfortable talking about these things. This is also a way to be politically active; this is part of how I’m politically engaged. My [previous] experience in detention really politicized me and it made me realize we deserve better.

If something positive can come out of being detained, it was those conversations with the women in Eloy. Having all of these talks about stigma, crimmigration, abortion—it was all so powerful.

If everything turns out OK for me and I make it out of this, I won’t stop going to protests. They can’t silence me. They can’t scare me into being quiet. But I also know I have to be more careful, and that’s what I would tell other activists. We’re being surveilled, especially if we’re immigrants, and we have to be careful. The circumstances of our lives are more delicate. We don’t have to be on the frontlines if we’re deportable, but we can exercise our First Amendment rights. I want to work with organizations and our community about how we can put our bodies on the line to defend and keep our people free. There needs to be a checklist that goes beyond the shit we think about now. How is a legal observer going to help an undocumented activist if a cop goes rogue?

The work I do is abolition work. I’m anti-enforcement. I want to abolish ICE, but that’s not the reality we live in now. So we need to make sure that vulnerable people aren’t even near the police and if the police want to arrest or detain a vulnerable person, the whole crowd needs to go. They can’t arrest all of us.

When one of us is arrested, what role do organizations play, what responsibility do they have to us? We need protection and we need people to put their bodies on the line for us or beside us. I don’t want to just have conversations about this; I want to help come up with solutions. ICE is ripping families apart, kidnapping children, racially profiling people, they break the law. This is a rogue agency. If we think that DHS has better things to do than show up at our little protest, we’re wrong. Everyone is a target under this administration. I know that because they showed up at my little protest and look what’s happening to me.

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