TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - With the federal courts facing a big backlog, some detainees have been waiting for over a year just to get their day in court.
Immigration advocacy groups have been holding protests, citing bad conditions and bad treatment of detainees in federal facilities.
To check out their complaints, we had to get permission from the top levels of the federal government to take our cameras inside an ICE detainee facility run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
According to federal documents, it costs about $164 a day per detainee. Immigration advocates have been calling for alternatives to detention, saying it is cheaper to keep them in their homes, with family. It's also more humane, advocates say, for the families struggling with the loss of a provider, who is stuck behind bars, awaiting their day in court.
Ana Cecilia said she missed her father.
"It's been exactly a year, a month, and eight days since they took my father away," Cecilia said.
Her father, Felipe Cobos Luna, had been in the U.S. for almost 20 years. Cecilia said the arrest has torn apart their family.
"I can't stand hearing him say, 'I'm sorry I can't be there, but I promise you I will be, very soon,'" Cecilia said.
ICE officials said Cobos Luna was being detained not only because of his illegal immigration status, but his criminal rap sheet. Federal records indicate Cobos Luna has been deported twice before re-entering the country illegally. A spokesman for ICE also said Cobos Luna had local domestic violence charges filed against him.
Despite the record, his family wants him home, while he awaits a hearing.
"All people in detention suffer a level of abuse, and conditions that are very challenging," said Raul Alcaraz Ochoa, a local immigration activist in Tucson.
After hearing numerous allegations about bad conditions, bad food, not enough food, and bad treatment, we asked Homeland Security officials if we could take our cameras inside a federal ICE detention facility, and get a firsthand look at how illegal immigrants are housed.
They granted our request.
"We are not hiding anything. We are proud of our detention facility," said Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, ICE division.
ICE officials said they are housing people of 80 different nationalities. A majority of the detainees housed at the facility in Florence are from Central America. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador being popular countries where detainees were fleeing from.
Despite feeling and looking like a prison with the barbed wire, security cameras, uniforms, and dorm rooms called open pods, ICE officials said that is not the case.
"No one here is being punished," Pitts O'Keefe said. She added that the detainees had a lot more freedom than inmates in a prison or county jail.
"They're fed three times a day, they have access to commissary items and snack machines at all times," Pitts O'Keefe said.
There are vending machines in the common areas of each dorm room. There is a large soda fountain in the cafeteria, with many more options found in most restaurants. Those are not items typically found in county and state facilities.
There are multiple pay phones in every dorm, along with machines where detainees can purchase calling cards, scattered throughout the complex.
Detainees are allowed to keep up to $60 cash on them at all times. Once a week, they have an opportunity to get checks or money orders cashed.
Detainees have access to laundry facilities every day. In the recreation yard, there is a newly turfed soccer field and gym equipment. In the day rooms, there are two TVs for detainees who are allowed to stay up until 1 a.m. on weekends.
Despite all the amenities, immigration advocates said the complaints they are hearing are very serious. "Lack of medical attention is a big one," Ochoa said.
However, there is a medical unit at the facility which, along with the pharmacy, is staffed 24 hours a day.
"Every morning every detainee is asked if they're feeling OK, or if there are any issues," Pitts O'Keefe said.
Officials said those who can't be treated in the medical unit are transported to a local hospital in Florence.
A doctor, nurses, and a dentist are on staff every day.
ICE officials said in a statement:
"We are committed to providing detainees with timely, safe, humane, and appropriate treatment, which includes medical, mental, and dental care."
Ochoa said another complaint he often hears is about the lack of food, and bad taste.
"The food in certain facilities is not adequate," Ochoa said.
Kitchen staff said they serve 3,500 calories a day, and the food they cook is the same that is fed to U.S. soldiers in military bases throughout the country. The federal government uses the same food vendor to cut costs.
ICE officials said they have complaint boxes throughout every dorm, and encouraged detainees to voice concerns. Staff said the biggest complaint they hear from detainees is about the status of their immigration court proceeding and wanting to know when they could go home.
"No one wants to be in detention. Most want to know when they will be released," Pitts O'Keefe said.
It is a question only an immigration judge can answer. Unlike a prison, families can visit detainees seven days a week, with up to three visitors allowed at a time. Visitation hours are pretty much all day long, including on weekends.
While the facility in Florence is run by ICE, the Department of Homeland security does have contracts with other private prisons like CCA to house federal inmates. Immigrant advocates complain that conditions in those facilities are typically worse, and harsher than the ICE facility in Florence.
Homeland Security officials said the detainees with more serious criminal backgrounds are usually sent to the other facilities.
"When we talk to my dad, it breaks my heart to see him cry and see hear how all of this is affecting him, especially mentally," Cecilia said.
To lighten the load and free up more beds, the Obama administration is trying to speed up court proceedings and fast-track deportations, especially for those with a violent criminal history.