DEERFIELD BEACH Hundreds of men and women who have committed minor offenses, such as driving without a license, or no apparent crime at all, are locked up for weeks and months in a little-known central Broward County facility run by a private company.
They are immigrants, accused of entering the country without legal authorization or staying longer than permitted.
Their treatment — at the hands of the federal government and the Boca Raton-based firm hired to keep them at the 700-bed Broward Transitional Center — has become a growing controversy since July, when a detainee went on hunger strike and activists staged protests demanding a halt to the confinement and deportation of foreigners with no serious criminal histories.
In a daring move, two young adults, both illegal immigrants brought by their families to the United States as children, turned themselves in to gain access to the center and expose what they claimed were human rights abuses and policy violations by federal authorities.
Once inside, they said they found people unjustly arrested and subjected to lengthy and unnecessary confinement, and reported incidents of substandard or callous medical care, including a woman taken for ovarian surgery and returned the same day, still bleeding, to her cell, and a man who urinated blood for days but wasn't taken to see a doctor.
ICE denies any mistreatment. In a recent interview with the Sun Sentinel, the agency's Miami Field Office Director Marc J. Moore said conditions at the facility are excellent and that the "staff here treats people with respect."
But the young activists' claims captured the attention of 26 members of Congress, who wrote to the nation's chief immigration official demanding a review of all detainees locked up at the Broward facility and an investigation into the quality of medical care there.
"Some of the reports coming out of the center are horrifying," lawmakers, including South Florida Democrats Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson and Alcee Hastings, wrote U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton.
ICE has yet to reply to the letter, written in September. Last week, Deutch sent a second letter, chastising ICE for its "excessive delay" and demanding it respond immediately to lawmakers' concerns.
"It's certainly time for us to hear back, and it's well past time that these serious issues be addressed," Deutch, of Boca Raton, told the Sun Sentinel on Friday.
If legislators continue to encounter silence from ICE, Deutch said they will investigate what actions can be taken to ensure that a review of the center is made and "these human rights abuses are stopped."
595 men, 105 women
Commonly known by the abbreviation BTC, the two-story center, painted bright pink, sits behind a wall on Powerline Road, next to an animal shelter and across the street from a massive landfill.
The facility is owned and run by The GEO Group Inc., one of the nation's leading private prison operators.
GEO "has provided high quality residential, medical and programming services in a safe and secure environment to detainees" at BTC for more than a decade, the company said in a statement to the Sun Sentinel when asked to comment on the letter from U.S. lawmakers.
On any given day, the center can house 595 men and 105 women under terms of a federal contract worth more than $20 million annually.
It's the only immigration detention center in Florida run by a private company — a distinction that has brought it special scrutiny and concern.
"I think that this place is systematically set up to keep these women here — and on the men's side, the men — because there's money being made in this place," detainee Viridiana Martinez told the radio program Democracy Now! in a phone call in July from inside. "This place is owned by a company, GEO. And every time someone is detained, they are given money."
Martinez was one of the two young illegal immigrants who purposefully got themselves detained at BTC last summer to draw attention to the situation inside.
The government holds foreigners accused of violating immigration law, in order to process and ensure their deportation. Some people are confined for weeks or months while they work to gather information to prove they have the right to stay in the United States or while they challenge their deportation through an overburdened legal system.