Although Martinez was free to attend public school — a 30-year-old U.S. Supreme Court case guarantees access to public education for children no matter their immigration status — there was no English-as-a-second-language class. Still, she excelled at academics and coasted through high school.

"[But] I always felt like an outsider," she says. "I wasn't white enough for the white people. I wasn't Mexican enough for the Mexican people because I was in AP honors classes... I always had this identity crisis."

She hoped to go to college and work at the United Nations helping displaced people. She graduated with honors in 2004 and was accepted at North Carolina State University. Unlike some colleges that have systems to help undocumented immigrants, N.C. State could do little to assist Martinez with funding or securing an international student visa.

ICE says detainees at Broward Transitional Center enjoy a less restrictive environment than at other centers.
Jacob Katel
ICE says detainees at Broward Transitional Center enjoy a less restrictive environment than at other centers.

"Literally, my world came tumbling down," she says. She drifted into a haze of depression and community college.

"I was 22 when I first came out publicly and was like 'I'm undocumented,' " she says. "I was fucking tired of keeping this big secret... And I just wanted to say, 'I'm undocumented. What? What? This is me: Undocumented. Illegal. Right here.' "

In 2010, Martinez helped form the North Carolina Dream Team, a nonprofit activist group that was pushing the DREAM Act, legislation meant to help undocumented residents — those who grew up in the U.S. and are students or served in the military — stay in the country and work legally. Since 2001, numerous versions of the bill have been put up for votes, with little success. In 2010, it passed the U.S. House before getting struck down in the Senate.

Undeterred, Martinez linked up with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), an umbrella organization funded by donations that supports pockets of DREAM activists across the country. Over emails and conference calls and at meetings, one place kept coming up as a microcosm of how flawed the immigration system had become: Broward Transitional Center. Not only is it one of the few privately contracted detention facilities ICE has, but the nature of low-priority cases detained there seems to contradict orders given by President Obama and the head of ICE demanding the agency focus its resources on convicts and those who pose a threat to national security.

"What makes that place so horrible — it's not so much the food; it's not so much the beds — it's the fact that you're not told anything about your case," Martinez says. "You're at the mercy of Judge Rex Ford or your deportation officer or your attorney, which a lot of times turns out to be a useless cow."

Of the country's 59 immigration courts, 19 are located inside detention facilities, including the one at BTC. The Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review oversees all immigration courts, which operate as administrative tribunals independent of the federal court system.

Detainees are charged by the Department of Homeland Security not with crimes but with civil immigration offenses, usually under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Only 15 percent of detainees — many of whom are picked up and asked for proof of citizenship without having committed any crime or only minor traffic infractions — secure legal representation, according to a recent report from the Center for Migration Studies.

Advocates say that without proper counsel, detainees struggle to understand the legal proceedings and are often strong-armed into waiving the right to a hearing or agreeing to voluntary deportation. When they do get in line to appear before a judge, it typically takes months. The immigration system is hopelessly backlogged; 260 judges slogged through more than 300,000 cases in 2011, making the average removal case stretch 507 days, according to data from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Though cases can take years, in the end, detainees either stay or go. The attorneys who bring the charges — in immigration court, these aren't standard federal prosecutors but rather ICE attorneys working for the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor — can drop the case and cancel removal orders if a person meets certain criteria, such as if they've been continuously present in the U.S. for ten years or if they can prove that deportation may "result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to his or her family."

Others may apply for asylum or petition to stay in the U.S. legally. Those who have been victims of crimes might be eligible for a U visa, though only 10,000 such visas can be issued each year.

Some detainees agree to voluntary deportation, meaning they pay for their way back and must leave the U.S. under a deadline. Others are unwillingly loaded onto either ICE aircraft or commercial flights and sent packing.

As they await their fate, some detainees are let out on bond (sometimes having to wear an ankle bracelet) and return for a hearing, but many are held at facilities like BTC. When Martinez was booked and went inside, she saw firsthand how all the statistics and rumors she'd heard translated into wasted tax dollars, fractured families, and total disregard for judicial norms.

On a broiling Saturday afternoon at the end of September, 17-year-old Jose Acosta, with his two brothers and father, stood in front of BTC holding signs that read "Let My Mom Out We Miss Her" and "We Are Unjustly Detained Here Please Help Us." A line of two dozen other protesters with signs snaked down the sidewalk.

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My Voice Nation Help

I know one of these people and he isn't some innocent little construction worker. He "rents" out other Hispanics taking $3 + off each hour that each works and keeps it for hisself plus using fraudulent insurance he pays to "work under" ....nice long as noone gets hurt... And do u think paying someone to pass you through the driver license process and not check your immigration status is okay??? It is illegal. Period. When I ... A US Citizen do ANYTHING with the government agencies I have to prove who I am or I don't get what I screw the pity party...this jerk even balked at the US Gov showing Pics of his ankle bracelet on his Facebook ...take your tail home if you don't like it!!!!!!

frankd4 topcommenter

this reminds me of the judge who presided over juvenile court and detained kids unecessarily because the judge had a personal financial interest in the OVER populated juvenile detention center


well why should judges be thought of as any less greedy or egotistical or power-hungry than investment bankers or politicians and after all most judges are in fact lawyers who are notoriously self promoting and self interested regardless of conflicts


still the hispancis only need to look at how america treated the indigenous american indians to see what miscarriages of justice this country was founded on


the only conselation is most every immigrant population has suffered a similar fate


Never ceases to amaze me that most Americans think that PRIVATIZATION of this kind won't cost any taxpayer money, while, in actual fact, it costs us WAY more.

KennyPowersII topcommenter

The arrogance of lawbreakers never ceases to amaze me.


Mr/Mrs. robinked: The world is not a better place because of people like you, calling other humans Scum, not having any compassion. I only feel sorry for you.


it Never ceases to Amaze me that the Lame-stream media  thinks that it IS A-ok to constantly parade the 'plight' of ILLEGALS & their Lawbreaking activities & Theft But Ignore the Plight of Hardworking American's, Taxpayers that have Lost Jobs, services, Scholorships etc. Due to these same ILLEGAL, Scum.........!!!!---Guess it goes back to that ol' "Blame the Victim" mentality.....NOT the Perpetrator of the CRIME..........sheesh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!