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Racial discrimination, excessive force, retaliation alleged at ICE detention center

The complaint could spark an investigation or cause Aurora facility to shut down
Immigrant rights organizations have filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security alleging racial discrimination and excessive use of force against two Black immigrants at the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Three immigrant rights organizations have filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security alleging racial discrimination, retaliation and excessive use of force against two Black immigrants housed at the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora.

The complaint, filed by the American Immigration Council, Immigrant Justice Idaho and Immigration Equality, alleges that two detention center guards have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination; the First Amendment of the Constitution; and a manual that outlines detention standards followed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for people held at the facility.

The complaint is centered on two Black detainees, identified by the pseudonyms “James” and “Musa,” because of potential for retaliation. The complaint alleges that two guards whose last names are Perry and Alvarez have engaged in egregious behavior that has violated the civil rights of James and Musa and other Black detainees.

The complaint does not include the nationalities of Musa and James, but Rebekah Wolf, policy counsel for the American Immigration Council, said during an interview, they are seeking asylum or protection from torture in their home countries. In the U.S., people held at the detention center are typically awaiting hearings in immigration court.

The immigrant rights organizations are demanding that ICE remove James and Musa from the detention center after an investigation into Alvarez and Perry. The complaint also asks for an investigation into any other claims of racial discrimination at the center, the firing of any staff member found to have used excessive force there, and the termination of any employees who have violated the civil or constitutional rights of detained people at the facility.

If a pattern of those practices is found, the complaint also asks that corrective measures be instituted by The GEO Group, the company contracted by ICE to operate the Aurora facility. The immigrant rights organizations have not ruled out filing a lawsuit.

“What is the most disturbing to me is the level to which the individuals involved did not seem to be concerned at all about what they were saying,” Wolf said. “They clearly thought it was completely fine – that there would not be any repercussions for using clear, overt, racist language and inappropriate excessive force against Black detainees. I can’t say that surprised me, but it certainly stood out to me.”

A woman who answered the phone at The GEO Group would not comment about the complaint. She said the reporter must contact the ICE Denver Field Office for comment. Alethea Smock, director of communications for ICE’s northwest region, said the organization had not received the complaint. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

James, who has been detained at the Aurora facility for more than two years, said he has been a victim of excessive use of force by facility officers, has witnessed anti-Black racism and was subjected to excessive searches and pat-downs.

In an affidavit accompanying the complaint, James recounted multiple instances when Perry made racist remarks in his presence, including asking detainees if they knew the difference between an elevator and a Black man. The difference, Perry said, is that an elevator can raise a child. Another time Perry said to James, “When a white baby dies, he becomes an angel, but when a Black baby dies, he becomes a bat.”

James said in the complaint that he once saw Perry make a hand gesture that he believes is a sign used by members of The 211 Crew, a white supremacist prison gang.

Last summer, when Alvarez was promoted to sergeant, he was in charge of the unit where James is housed. After Alvarez’s promotion, officers began searching cells around four times per week, an increase from the former policy of searching once or twice per month. The increase in searches abruptly halted at the beginning of this year.

James said he was physically assaulted by Alvarez during a cell search in December. James said Alvarez used disrespectful language and told him to “Get the (expletive) out” of his cell. Alvarez then twice sprayed James with pepper spray. Two other officers tackled James to the ground.

“As the officers were tackling me, I felt like something tore in my right foot,” James said. “I injured my right foot a while back and I was scared that the officers grabbing me and pushing me to the floor made the injury worse. Officer Perry got on top of me and started squeezing my neck and head. At some point while the officers held me down, Sergeant Alvarez lifted my dreadlock from my face and pepper sprayed me again.”

Unable to walk because of the injury to his foot, James was handcuffed and brought to the medical unit in a wheelchair. Officers also brought three other Black men to the medical unit.

“These men were nearby when the officers attacked me,” James said. “However, the men did not do anything wrong. Despite that, all four of us were placed in disciplinary segregation.”

After an investigation by Aurora facility staff members, James was accused of assaulting a staff member, endangering the people or safety of the facility and refusing to obey a direct order. Alvarez submitted an incident report, saying he pepper-sprayed James, because James threatened him.

James said he asked another officer to view a video recording of the incident to confirm he had not threatened Alvarez. “It was concluded that I did not violate Code 108 (assault on staff member),” James says in the complaint.

James spent two weeks in solitary confinement, and he lost the job he had at the facility as a result.

A few months later, in early March, James said he saw Alvarez attack another Black person. The man was standing near other people who were complaining that they wanted more time in the yard. This angered Alvarez, who grabbed the Black man and then twisted his arms behind his back. Alvarez pushed the man’s face against the wall, before another officer pulled Alvarez off of the man. The incident occurred in an open area outside of people’s cells. Many other detained people witnessed the incident, James said.

“I believe that the treatment to which Black people are subjected at Aurora, is racist and unjust,” James said. “I am making this affidavit to bring the behavior of Sergeant Alvarez and Officer Perry to the public and agency attention and raise awareness of these alarming issues.”

U.S. scales back in other detention facilities

The Aurora complaint was filed just after ICE announced it is planning to close and scale back other detention facilities because of similar problems. The Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, will close because of the “quantity, severity, diversity and persistence of deficiencies” there.

ICE will also close Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, Florida, where there have been ongoing concerns related to medical care at the facility. A group of lawmakers said Glades should be closed after complaints surfaced about racist abuse against Black people detained there. ICE will also reduce the number of beds at the Alamance County Detention Facility in Graham, North Carolina, and the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, citing in part a reduced number of detainees, according to Reuters.

In February, the American Immigration Council filed a different complaint against the Aurora facility, for poor health standards that resulted in a COVID-19 outbreak inside the facility. According to the complaint, the facility had not provided sufficient opportunities for vaccination, did not enforce mask-wearing rules for staff members, did not provide enough cleaning supplies and was neglecting the medical needs of people detained there. “We received acknowledgment of the complaint but it has not moved further than that,” Wolf said.

More than 20,000 people were detained across the U.S. on March 27, according to Syracuse University, which maintains a database of immigration detention statistics.

“The allegations against these officers are deeply troubling,” said Kaylin Dines, communications director for Rep. Jason Crow. “Congressman Crow has a long record of holding this detention center accountable – including providing weekly reports on the facility to ensure full transparency with our community. Our office is looking into this disturbing complaint.”

There is “very little” oversight of ICE and its immigrant detention centers, Wolf said. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, one of the internal divisions that reviews conduct and conditions at ICE detention centers, released one of the most scathing reports about a detention center that Wolf’s organization has ever seen. The report cited sanitation-related concerns and security lapses at Torrance County Detention Center in Estancia, New Mexico, and called for removing people detained there, with congressional offices supporting the demand, she said.

“And they’re at an impasse,” she said. “Because there’s no enforcement mechanism that the OIG (Office of Inspector General) can use. No one can order ICE to close it, except for DHS (the Department of Homeland Security). So that’s a real gap in our system of checks and balances where the Department of Homeland Security and ICE are really working out on an island of their own.”

The most recent complaint her organization co-filed against the Aurora facility in late March could cause the Department of Homeland Security to conduct an investigation or close down the facility, Wolf said.

“One report, one investigation, seems a little bit like a drop in the bucket, but continuing to shed light on what these facilities really look like and seem like and what happens in them, is important to us about the broader conversation about immigration detention,” she said.

Another complaint

Musa has been detained at the Aurora detention facility for a year and is seeking a green card. He has several mental health diagnoses that have been exacerbated during his time at the detention facility, he said.

“Alvarez and Perry are best friends and work as a team to bother me,” Musa says in the complaint. “When Perry starts harassing me, Alvarez backs him up.”

According to the complaint, Perry calls Musa a zookeeper. “I believe that he calls me a zookeeper because I’m African and Africa is known to have wild animals,” Musa said. “As soon as I see him, I go to my room to avoid having problems with him and getting in trouble.”

Musa said Perry has made so many racist comments in front of him that he said he can’t keep track of the incidents.

Musa said he witnessed Perry calling an Iranian detainee “an RPG,” a rocket-propelled grenade, which Wolf said is a derogatory term for people of Middle Eastern descent.

In one incident, Musa said he was placed in handcuffs that were so tight, his hands became numb.” After an hour of wearing the handcuffs, Musa asked to see a psychiatrist. He was taken to solitary confinement, and after three days, he sat in front of a disciplinary board, which said he should serve 72 hours in disciplinary segregation, but that they would honor his time already served there.

“However, an officer took me back to solitary confinement anyway,” Musa said in the complaint. He stayed in confinement for nine days, where he went on a hunger strike for six of those days. When he was taken to a psychiatrist, the doctor told Musa to focus on getting out of lockdown.

A few weeks after Musa was released from solitary confinement, he was interviewed by CBS News and the Spanish-speaking news organization Telemundo, about how officers refused to give detainees COVID-19 tests. After the CBS interview, Alvarez told Musa, “it would come back to me,” which Musa perceived as a threat.

In January, Musa was sitting at a table preparing to eat when Perry walked into the area. Musa went back to his room and closed the door to avoid an altercation. Perry came to Musa’s door and banged on it, startling Musa, who hit his head on the top bunk above him. Perry saw Musa, startled, through the window in the door. Perry laughed and then walked away.

“The incident triggered my PTSD, so I went to talk to the psychiatrist,” Musa said. The psychiatrist wrote a letter that day to the administration of the detention center saying Perry and Alvarez were intentionally triggering Musa’s PTSD, according to the complaint. The psychiatrist said the letter might help to “prevent further misunderstanding” but that the doctor would get in trouble for writing it.

Later that day, another detained person told Musa that he saw Perry putting his ungloved hands in Musa’s food. A Black officer promised that someone would reprimand Perry. Since then, Musa has seen Perry a few times. “Once in the hallway, he pinched his nose, as if to say that I stink,” Musa said.

“I am worried I will have a mental breakdown,” he said. “Every time someone has a breakdown, it’s not guaranteed that they will come back the same. I am scared because I have seen what Alvarez and Perry can do – choking, pepper spraying and beating. When other officers see them doing something like this, they don’t ask what’s going on to try to de-escalate. They just join in.”

Musa said he doesn’t want to continue complaining at the detention facility because he fears Alvarez will retaliate by beating or tasing him. “But I want to submit my affidavit because this is America,” he said. “Somebody has to stand up for what is right.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.