Sandra Montero has spent so many hours behind razor wire and towering walls in the backcountry of California that she sometimes suffers nightmares. The nightmares, she says, take an even greater toll than the daily exhaustion and fear of working hundreds of hours in sweltering heat. But in the American justice system, those nightmares are always treated as minor crimes and behind bars. When she is not working, Montero is often locked up in a tiny federal detention center, where she lives with 54 other migrant farmworkers.
It is a shelter the size of an elevator bank in a remote patch of the Jemez Mountains in southern New Mexico. The facility was designed to house five workers at a time, but a surge in illegal immigration has forced nearly a dozen workers to join the collective. Montero, 34, has spent the last 17 years working on farms across Southern California, earning about $10 an hour picking carrots, broccoli and cabbage. Each summer, she told me in a phone interview, she typically receives two to three weeks of seasonal work. But one night recently, she said, she was on call for work all day. She finally went to sleep at 7:30 p.m. “We work like slaves,” she said.
And like the slaves in George Orwell’s novels, Montero, who came to the United States in the 1990s, said, “if I complained I would be deported.” After struggling to get hired as a farmworker, she said, she has had to wait years to secure work each year. Immigrant farmworkers are hit with charges of almost every offense under the sun, from unpaid wages to applying pesticides while pregnant to eating unsanitary food and even participating in gang activity. But they can’t risk complaining for fear that their immigration status will be cut off or that their children will be separated from them and placed in protective custody by the federal government. It is a situation experts say has grown more dire as deportations, which reached a record 409,849 in fiscal year 2017, skyrocketed.
By last year, Montero said, she was coming up with money to pay for repairs on the roof of her apartment, but federal immigration authorities put her on a no-get list that prevents her from receiving social security payments and private student loans. She is not the only person living in that cell-like environment: At a time when most cities around the country have passed sanctuary city laws, Mexico has become the closest thing to a country in her experience. Montero said that at most places she worked migrants were provided a copy of their social security numbers and allowed to collect them upon request. But in a “sanctuary city,” she said, she usually had to pay cash for a photocopy. “If I talk about wages they let me stay,” she said. “But the crops all get sold by brokers and agents and I never get paid.”
It is a Catch-22 because laborers who voice their grievances get thrown behind bars. The facility in New Mexico was built for about $4 million, more than half the cost of sheltering the migrant workers in Los Angeles. It is designed to house 55 people, but detaining migrant farmworkers and charging them for the costs of their incarceration is a federal function.
By some estimates, the cost of keeping 60 migrant farmworkers in the room on any given day amounts to more than $100,000 each year. In New Mexico, the cost works out to nearly $100,000 per employee. The Bureau of Prisons is the federal government’s main detention system, housing some three million people on average per year. Since the government realized it was overstretching its facilities, it has taken steps toward reform. Still, the federal jail system has become notorious in the eyes of a growing population of immigrant workers who are protesting its harsh conditions. According to federal data obtained by the advocacy group America’s Voice, over 110,000 of its prisoners are migrants.
Montero’s daily routine begins around 7 a.m. She leaves for work at 8:30 a.m. after eating breakfast in the cell. After serving a meal in the small kitchen, she sits down on a bench outside to read The New York Times, according to a photo of the structure that she gave me. Montero’s daily regimen is interrupted by scheduled medical visits, with less than an hour or two of relaxation time.
“There is no privacy,” she said. “You’re practically a slave.”