NPR Story
1:18 am
Thu February 28, 2013

Hundreds of Immigrant Detainees Return To Families

PHOENIX — A Greyhound bus station near the Phoenix airport is the first stop for many immigrants released from immigration detention centers in Arizona.

Taxi driver Henry Williams works here most evenings. He says it’s normal to see a few people dropped off from immigration detention centers on a nightly basis, but last weekend was unusual.

“This Saturday it was humongous, there was three busloads,” Williams said.

That’s because starting late last week, ICE released certain detainees who weren’t a priority for detention. The 300 released in Arizona accounted for about 12 percent of the detained population in the state.

The agency said the releases have wound down, but they were an effort to stay within its budget as federal lawmakers grapple with the threat of automatic sequestration cuts.

The unusual move provoked outrage from several prominent Republicans, including Arizona’s governor.

Whatever the fall out, it meant good business for taxis here.

“I took one who got released on Saturday,” Williams said. “We took him all the way to Fresno, California.”

That’s an eight and a half hour drive.

Williams said the customer didn’t have much money on him, but his family paid the fare of $1,400 in cash when they arrived.

Many immigrants detained here in Arizona don’t have ties to the state, and are trying to get to other parts of the country.

Around 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, a van coming from a detention center in Florence, Ariz. pulled up across the street.

Five men got out, each with a paper bag holding their belongings.

One was Reynaldo Mejia, a 21-year-old from El Salvador with a black goatee.

“I was detained for several months,” Mejia said in Spanish. He said he was apprehended at the border.

He noticed some people were being released from the detention center this weekend.

“I felt hope, happiness, because I was thinking my turn would come," he said. "And thank God, it did come."

He has no ID on him except the official bracelet from the detention facility that is still on his wrist.

This bus station is essentially the first place he’s been in the U.S. as a free man.

His family bought him a bus ticket to join them in Los Angeles. That’s also where he has to show up for immigration court next month.

Like all the immigrants recently released from detention, his immigration case hasn’t been dismissed, and he still faces the possibility of deportation.

“They gave me documents with the date and address of where I have to show up,” Mejia said.

A half hour later, about a dozen more people are dropped off. Their belongings are in plastic bags.

They said they came from immigration detention facilities in Eloy in Central Arizona.

A man who doesn’t give his name says his release was a nice surprise.

“I got happy, I get to go see my kids,” he said in accented English.

He hasn’t seen them in 18 months. Now he is headed back to his old home in California.

A skinny 24-year-old who only gives his name as Francisco shivered with excitement in the parking lot. He’s just borrowed a taxi driver’s phone to call relatives in Mesa to pick him up.

“They didn’t know I was coming,” he said in Spanish with a laugh.

Francisco will have to check in with ICE officers in Phoenix while he waits for his court date.

He says he was in danger in Mexico and came to ask for asylum here.

When I ask him what he’ll do now that he is no longer detained, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Work and work, and give it my all,” he said.

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