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Cheering for the USA From a Detention Center in Florence, Arizona

07/09/2014 06:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2014
John Moore via Getty Images

Through a tinted glass window I saw a group of men watching a World Cup match. Neither Belgium nor the US had scored any goals yet. "Cuidado!" ("Watch out!") yelled one of the men when one of the Belgian players got close to scoring. Everybody had their eyes glued to the television. This game was going to determine whether the US team would make it to the quarterfinals.

I work as an immigration attorney in Florence, Arizona, providing free legal services to non-citizen detainees who are facing deportation from the United States. I saw this group of men during one of my visits to one of the many detention centers that the Department of Homeland Security uses to detain more than two thousand people in this state. Although I had seen this same group of men watching other World Cup matches before, this time was different.

Once the prison guard let me into their common cell there was no mistaking which team they were all cheering for. "USA! USA!" They chanted together. I quickly asked one man if he was cheering for the US team. "Claro! (Of course!)", he answered. "I have lived in this country my entire life. I don't know any other country." I was shocked by his answer. I smiled but inside of me I felt like crying. I couldn't understand how this man could cheer for the same country that was trying to deport him, the same country that had detained him for months, and the same country that separated him from his family. This man, like most in this group, felt "American" and there was nothing that an immigration judge, a prison guard, or a border patrol agent could tell him that would make him change his mind. He was cheering for the United States, for "his country."

I left the detention center still in shock and thinking about this group of men. Although the US government had hurt them so much, they still identified strongly with the place where they grew up, the place where their families are, and the place where they saw their kids born.

The level of injustice that the current immigration laws perpetuate against people like these men is deplorable. Many of them came to this country when they were very young and they grew up here. Others grew up elsewhere but love this country because it provided them and their children with a better place to live and opportunities they wouldn't have had back in their birth country. Whatever their reasons, they all made it to this country and they were now cheering for the US team. In fact, most of them didn't feel connected enough to any other country to cheer for it.

This group of US soccer fans illustrated how beautiful humanity could be, but also how irrational and arbitrary immigration laws in the United States currently are. For example,Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the interior enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security, detains approximately 34,000 individuals across the country at any given time in order to comply with a bed quota mandated by law. The number is completely arbitrary, and the concept of a legislative mandated detention quota is an aberration among law enforcement agencies.

Absent the bed quota, ICE and immigration judges would only focus on whether a person would be a danger to the community or would not show up for his next court hearing. With the bed quota, little to no inquiry into those criteria is made. For example, one of the men I saw that day came to this country as a child and is now seeking asylum because he is afraid of persecution in his birth country due to his sexual orientation. The only reason why he is detained is because he is undocumented and beds need to be filled. Another man, brought by his mother to America when he was less than a year old, is being detained because of an old loitering conviction after becoming homeless in Phoenix three years ago. If 34,000 beds did not need to be filled, this man would not be detained.

I wish that members of Congress could have been at the detention center to witness these men. They would have understood the need to end this unjust, inhumane, and costly system that is hurting our country. Hopefully, President Obama will order the Department of Homeland Security to reinterpret the bed quota and order the end of its enforcement. If we want to build a country full of people that love it, identify with it, and cheer for it, these men deserve to be freed and join it. If we do things right, for the next World Cup they will be outside of this detention center cheering for the team and country they love.

Luis F. Mancheno is a Staff Attorney at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona.