The 29-year-old had fled his home in Ghana years before, fearing for his life after protesting against female genital mutilation.
He flew to South Africa and then Ecuador and walked through Colombia — where, he said, he was robbed of everything he owned — Central America and Mexico to reach the United States and what he thought would be safety.
He eventually found himself in Irvine, amid an explosion of new middle-class housing — and people going about largely contented and productive lives — not far from the old El Toro Marine base. But instead of living the Orange County dream, he was being housed in the James A. Musick Facility — a jail.
At the border in 2014, he had declared himself an asylum-seeker, and that triggered his arrest.
“They said, ‘Put your hands on your head, don’t move, stand still!’ Then they handcuffed us,” said the man.
“That was the first time I had ever been handcuffed, and all my spirit went away from me. I thought, ‘Why? What did I do?’ I was shocked. If you told someone in Ghana that if you go to the United States to seek asylum you’ll be arrested, there’s no way they would believe it.”
He was held for over a year in detention, first at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange and then at Musick, as he awaited hearings to determine his eligibility for asylum.
The Ghanaian — who is no longer in detention but who requested that his name not be revealed because of continuing fears of deportation — was among the 1,000 people from across the country held every day in immigrant detention, along with the inmates, at the Santa Ana Jail, Theo Lacy and Musick.
“It’s to make sure people comply with the immigration court and to ensure they’re available for a final order of removal so we can carry out their repatriation,” said Virginia Kice, western regional spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.
Still, many await their asylum or immigration hearings in jails for what can be months or years.
The year the man from Ghana spent locked up was confusing, depressing and isolating, he said. He didn’t know what was happening or what he needed to do to get out. There were few people he could talk to in detention, since everyone seemed to be from a different country and speaking a different language.
“I was thinking, maybe they wanted to put me in jail forever,” he said.
Orange County started its practice of immigrant detention in 2010, when the Santa Ana Jail, Theo Lacy and Musick became contractors for ICE, agreeing to designate a certain number of beds exclusively for immigrant detainees.
The next year, California would institute prison realignment, an effort to divert low-level offenders from crowded state prisons to jails. This move would lead to overcrowding at local facilities and prompt vociferous complaints from cities.
But in 2010, the arrangement with ICE made sense for the county, said Ray Scruggs, administrative manager for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “ICE was looking for a facility that had beds available and at that time; the county had available beds,” he said. “It also works out for ICE because they don’t have to build a specific facility for detainees if they can find an agency that has available beds.”
A year before the contract was reached, the U.S. Congress passed a little-known “detention bed mandate,” which provides ICE the funding to hold 34,000 immigrants in detention.
This led to a boom in the number of immigrant detainees across the country.
“In the 1980s, the average annual detainee population was 2,000 or 3,000,” said Caitlin Patler, a fellow at UC Irvine’s department of law and criminology who is researching immigrant detention in Orange County. “The number of people who pass through detention is now in the 400,000 range every year” in the U.S.
Immigrant detention now costs American taxpayers more than $2 billion per year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Those who end up in immigrant detention typically fall into two categories, Patler explained.
The first are asylum seekers like the Ghanaian — those fleeing their home countries out of fear of persecution or violence — who are immediately taken from the border to detention, where they await hearings to determine their eligibility.
The second are immigrants, documented and undocumented, who have been living in the United States when an arrest — for offenses ranging from drug possession to murder — triggers an immigration hearing.
But facing an immigration hearing doesn’t necessarily mean detention, and, in fact, “the majority of people whose immigration cases are pending are not in detention,” Kice said.
“Our detention capacity is limited, and we simply are not in a position to detain everyone who’s in proceeding, nor would that be necessary,” she said. “We have alternatives to detention in those cases where someone may be appropriately released.”
As of July 16, 37,350 people were being held in immigration detention across the country, according to Kice, and 16,739 of them had prior criminal convictions.
Guiding ICE’s decision on who to put in detention is a 2014 memo that prioritizes the detention of immigrants whose crimes constitute threats to national security or public safety.
This is not how it always works in practice, however, Patler said.
“The bar is set pretty low in terms of the types of things you have to do to trigger mandatory detention,” she said.
Unlike the criminal justice system, immigrant detainees have few rights, including legal representation.
“Public defenders are not available in immigration court,” Patler said. “Unless they can pay for a private attorney, most detainees end up representing themselves in court, which, you can imagine for a non-English speaker or someone who’s not educated, can be a sad sight. They’re so vulnerable.”
It’s easy to drive by the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine and not realize you’ve passed a jail.
Tucked away between Alton and Bake parkways, just a few miles from the Irvine Spectrum Center, the sprawling, 100-acre, minimum-security jail is barely noticeable from the road.
Although detention is not supposed to be punishment, here detainees and prisoners are housed in separate but similar accommodations: each group in a large, open room filled with rows of bunk beds, with communal showers and restrooms in the back. The quarters are adjacent to an outdoor recreation yard with a volleyball net and basketball hoop.
Through a large wrap-around plexiglass window, prison officials can see everything: men in bright-yellow prison jumpsuits chatting mostly in English, Spanish and Chinese, playing cards, shuffling into the shower, playing sports or huddling under the few trees outside to escape the blazing sun.
Musick holds about 1,000 low-level criminal offenders and about 300 immigrant detainees, male and female.
But as officials are quick to point out, detainees have more privileges than the inmates have, including more outdoor recreation time, greater access to an on-site law library (Internet is prohibited), a clean change of clothes each day, and the opportunity to work as a gardener, barber or library orderly for $1 per day.
“If you’re doing time in a facility, that’s the place to be,” Scruggs said of Musick. “It’s a lot more relaxed. These guys know not to get into fights or create an issue, or there’s a good chance they’ll be sent back to a higher-level facility.”
In some sections of Theo Lacy, by contrast, detainees can be on lockdown for 23 hours a day.
“On the books, detention is a non-punitive administrative procedure,” Patler said. “But in practice, people are being held in jails for long periods of time, and they’re subjected to the same sorts of restraints that anyone who goes to jail is subjected to.”
Detention also affects those outside prison walls, especially in Orange County.
“I talk to a lot of detainees who have families and children, and those families are deeply affected by the separation in the same way that incarcerated families are affected,” said Patler, who added that many people detained locally are longtime, lawful permanent residents.
“But often times immigrant families can’t access the same network of support a U.S. citizen could, like income support or food stamps.”
Changes are slowly coming to the system.
A group of immigrant detainees filed a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles, Rodriguez vs. Robbins, arguing that those in prolonged detention have the right to a bond hearing. In 2013, a federal appeals court ruled in their favor, so now, anyone in the Central District of California, which includes Orange County, who is detained for six months or longer will automatically receive a bond hearing.
And earlier this year, California state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) introduced S.B. 1289, the “Dignity Not Detention Act,” which would prohibit cities from contracting with private facilities, which are widely believed to house 62% of immigrant detention beds nationwide, on behalf of ICE and require the adoption of basic health and safety standards.
The asylum-seeker from Ghana went to court 10 times before his eventual release in 2015. Even though he continues to live under the threat of deportation, he’s trying to establish a normal life for himself in Orange County, which means simple things, like opening a bank account and securing a work permit.
But mostly he’s just happy to be out of Musick.
“Being in jail is very, very hard,” he said.