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Immigrant detainees, many from migrant caravan, write letter condemning detention centers

“We demand that CCA treats us like the humans that we are,” referring to the private prison company.
Image: Migrant caravan
Members of a caravan of Central Americans who spent weeks traveling across Mexico walk from Mexico to the U.S. side of the border to ask authorities for asylum on April 29, 2018 in Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico.David McNew / Getty Images

Thirty-seven immigrants, all currently detained in Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, wrote an open letter condemning the conditions at the center.

Many of the 37 detainees who participated in the letter were members of the migrant caravan made up of Central Americans who arrived at the U.S. border earlier this month seeking asylum.

“We come fleeing to this country, not because we want to, but because we come looking for help (asylum),” the letter reads, “in our countries we are tortured, exploited, extorted and discriminated.”

The letter was initially handwritten by the detainees and given to members from the immigration rights group, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, who posted the letter online Thursday.

Bryan Claros, 20, from El Salvador, is one of the detainees is Otay Mesa who co-wrote the letter and traveled in the migrant caravan. NBC News spoke to Claros over the phone Thursday.

“The conditions here are awful,” said Claros, who has spent a month in detention since reaching the U.S. border. Claros describes the food in the center tasting like it has gone bad and not nearly enough, so most everyone is hungry all the time.

“There are too many people inside here,” Claros said. “The showers, the bathrooms, the beds, there are people everywhere.”

One of his biggest concerns is getting stuck in the detention center, waiting for the process of seeking asylum to play out.

“There are people here who have been waiting for years,” Claros said.

Claros travelled in the migrant caravan with his younger brother, Luis, and their stepfather, Andres Rodriguez. While his family has remained together in detention, Claros mentioned one father from the migrant caravan who was separated from his 11-year-old son.

That father’s story, who only wishes to be identified by his first name, Josué, was shared by Pueblo Sin Fronteras Friday in a written statement.

The 29-year-old father from El Salvador said that after he was separated from his 11-year-old son, he has not been able to stop crying. “It’s not a sin to be a parent,” said Josué.

“They told him they sent his son to a shelter,” said Claros, “but the father doesn’t know where it is and if he’ll ever see his son again.”

Pueblo Sin Fronteras confirmed, in Friday’s statement, that nine parents have been separated from their children by ICE officials since seeking asylum at the U.S. border. The group says Trump's ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early May, is designed to separate asylum seekers and criminally charge families.

Meanwhile, Claros said he has been asking anyone he can in the detention center about seeing a judge to discuss his asylum claim, but he still hasn’t seen one.

The immigrants, all men, are in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Otay Mesa, run by CoreCivic, a private prison company formerly known as Corrections Corporations of America (CCA).

They claim in the letter that while in detention, they’ve been mistreated and abused and lack medical attention. “We demand that CCA treats us like the humans that we are,” the letter reads.

When detainees ask for medical attention, according to the letter, they are not treated and immigration officials ignore their injuries.

The detainees also claim they received previously used razors to shave, leaving them susceptible to the spread of infection.

“Several of the issues described in this letter have been addressed in response to previous complaints,” an ICE spokesperson wrote to NBC News in an email, adding that an ICE compliance unit is currently looking into the complaints alleged in the letter.

In the letter, the detainees claim that CCA offers voluntary work to detainees, but that if they refuse to work, officials threaten to report them to judges and damage their asylum cases.

“Allegations about detainees forced into labor have been addressed,” an ICE spokesperson wrote to NBC News in an email, maintaining detainees work under voluntary circumstances. “Those who choose to work are paid by CoreCivic,” the statement said.

According to the letter, detainees earn $1.50 for every six hours of work.