Las Vegas Sun

December 8, 2023

Immigrant detention: Is Henderson’s financial boon part of a national boondoggle?

City has been paid millions annually to house immigrant detainees, but the center and reasons for detentions come under increasing fire

New Henderson Detention Center

Sam Morris

This is an intake room at the Henderson Detention Center on Oct. 16, 2013. The center contracts with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to house immigration detainees.

New Henderson Detention Center

This is the entrance to the Henderson Detention Center Oct. 16th, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Map of Henderson Detention Center

Henderson Detention Center

243 South Water Street, Henderson

Until he was detained, Martin Martinez, an immigrant from El Salvador who entered the United States illegally in 2006, never saw himself or his family as a burden on U.S. taxpayers.

That’s all changed.

On March 27, Martinez went to a Metro Police station with his wife and son for what he thought would be the first step toward legalizing his residency status.

He left hours later in the back of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement vehicle headed for the Henderson Detention Center. And he has been staring down deportation and separation from his family ever since.

“I work and I pay taxes. I care for my family,” Martinez said. “Then, when I start to try to legalize my status, I’m detained. So I’m not working, and meanwhile the government is paying to lock me up. Now, if they deport me, who will take care of my wife and son, who are U.S. citizens? They’ll be public charges. It makes no sense.”

A growing chorus of immigrant advocates in Southern Nevada and across the nation agrees with him. With Congress considering sweeping immigration reform measures, advocates are calling for a halt to deportations and alternatives to detention that are less costly and more humane.

With an average detainee population of more than 200 per day, the Henderson Detention Center has been the primary facility in Nevada for housing federally detained immigrants since early 2011, according to ICE documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The federal contract has been a windfall for city coffers, with annual revenues between $10 million and $11 million. The contract has generated revenues above expenses ranging from $5 million to $6 million annually, with the surplus money going into the city’s general fund.

A report from UNLV’s immigration law clinic, being released today and already reviewed by the Sun, argues that the Henderson Detention Center has failed to comply with federal detention standards and procedures, including reasonable access to medical care and legal assistance. After conducting interviews with dozens of immigrant detainees at the facility earlier this year, the report’s authors are calling for an independent review of the city jail.

Officials from ICE and Henderson say the jail is routinely reviewed by federal and contract inspectors and always has been found in compliance.

Henderson’s take is just a fraction of the $2 billion in federal taxpayer dollars spent annually on immigrant detention. While a piecemeal approach to reforming immigration enforcement has led to some efficiencies and alternative methods of monitoring immigrants, advocates say millions in tax dollars are wasted each year on detaining immigrants, the majority of whom have no criminal convictions and no legal representation.


Fleeing gang violence and extortion in his native El Salvador, Martinez illegally crossed into Texas in 2006 from Mexico. He was unaware that he could have applied for asylum. Border Patrol agents apprehended Martinez, and he was released with a court summons in Texas. He says he did not fully understand what had happened and immediately met up with family in Los Angeles.

Immigration Reform Demonstration

Martin Martinez, who is fighting for a petition for residency in the United States, stands with a large group of protesters in front of a local ICE office demanding action on immigration reform, Wednesday April 10, 2013. Launch slideshow »

After failing to show for the court hearing, Martinez was deported in absentia.

After moving from Los Angeles, he met Blanca Canales in 2008 in Las Vegas. They wed in 2011.

In March of this year, Martinez, now married to a U.S. citizen who could petition for his legal residency, wanted to verify he had no outstanding tickets or legal matters that would doom the application. They went to the Metro station to inquire about those legal issues.

Metro, however, notified ICE. Because of the outstanding deportation order against Martinez, Metro was legally mandated to take Martinez into custody.

Martinez, 32, spent 15 days in the Henderson jail, which started taking in hundreds of immigrant detainees after a $29 million expansion and renovation was completed in February 2011. While detained, Martinez says he lost 15 pounds because of the poor food. He said three people shared the two-person cell and he was pressured to sign documents he did not understand.

Clawing its way out of the recession and facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, Henderson undertook an expansion of its city jail with the express purpose of generating revenue via federal contracts. The overwhelming majority of immigrant detainees nationally are housed in state, local or private facilities. ICE, which operates just a handful of its own facilities, argues the flexibility provided in contracted facilities works to the agency’s advantage. ICE is charged an average of $120 per day for each immigrant detained in a contracted facility.

The Henderson jail, at a daily rate of $102 per person, is a bargain for ICE. In the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the jail’s average daily population of 254 immigrant detainees in custody made it the 40th-busiest detention center in the country out of 250, according to ICE figures. The contracts are managed through the U.S. Marshals Service.

Contracts between ICE and facilities in Nevada, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed that Washoe County Jail is the only other site in the state where ICE places immigrant detainees. The average daily population of ICE detainees in the Washoe County Jail is 17.

Henderson detainees questioned this year by UNLV's Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic — one group of students conducted interviews in the spring and a second group took up the project in the fall — reported an array of concerns. Immigrants in the Henderson jail claimed they were threatened, berated and sometimes forced to sign documents. Their access to legal help is obstructed and medical complaints are ignored, they said. Furthermore, the report argues problems outlined in a 2011 U.S. Office of Detention Oversight report on the jail have yet to be rectified.

The report’s authors are joining with immigration reform advocates today at a protest outside the detention center. Additionally, the UNLV team that conducted the research plans to ask the Henderson City Council for a formal review of the facility.


In 2009, when Andy Hafen became mayor after 22 years on the City Council, Henderson was facing a budget shortfall of $90 million and the city was in the middle of a rapid contraction.

Before the onset of the Great Recession in December 2007, immigrant detention was rapidly expanding. Reforms passed in 1996 and again after 9/11 mandated detention for more classes of immigration violations. State laws and federal initiatives ramped up enforcement. Between 1995 and 2009, ICE expanded its detention capacity by 400 percent, and by 2012, about 400,000 immigrants were detained.

In Henderson, the recession brought to a halt most of the city’s capital improvement projects. The detention center expansion — with its promise to generate revenue — moved forward.

“Even during the downturn, the city continued to expand and grow. We were planning for what our needs would be in the future,” Henderson spokesman Bud Cranor said, adding that the plan was to earn revenue with federal contracts until the city needed beds for its own inmates.

On Feb. 10, 2011, the detention center’s new wing opened, adding 250 beds to the existing 293. According to annual budget reports, revenue collected from detention has gone up from $3.4 million in fiscal 2009-2010 to more than $11 million in 2012-2013. The amount of revenue over expenses generated from the federal contract, between $5 million and $6 million annually, goes to the city’s general fund.

When Henderson opened its expanded center, ICE immediately started filling beds. There were immigrants of all sorts, some of whom had criminal records.


Some detainees, such as Anna Ledesma, had never encountered law enforcement in their lives.

Anna Ledesma

Anna Ledesma is studying for her board certification after receiving her nursing degree from the College of Southern and is also in the application process for deferred action for childhood arrivals, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Ledesma came to the United States from the Philippines at age 7. Her legal residency was tied to her father’s work visa. Ledesma became estranged from her father but ended up staying in the United States with family in Las Vegas, where she grew up and eventually graduated with a nursing degree from the College of Southern Nevada. Her visa lapsed, however — a civil violation under immigration law.

On Aug. 21, 2011, after a night out in San Diego, Ledesma and her friends returned to a military base on Coronado Island, where a father of one of the young women was stationed. Military police asked for identification from everyone in the group, and, when Ledesma produced a passport but no current visa, they called Border Patrol.

Detention centers in San Diego were full. After a 21-hour plane journey from Southern California that included stops in El Paso, Texas; Mesa, Ariz.; and Colorado Springs, Colo., Ledesma wound up booked into the Henderson jail. Most of the other immigrant women she was with lived in Southern California, far from friends, family and familiar attorneys.

Ledesma was locked up for almost two weeks. Her case later was dismissed, and she is now in the middle of the application process for deferred action for childhood arrivals.

Marlen Garcia, who was transported with Ledesma to the Henderson jail, says she was picked up in her heavily Hispanic San Diego neighborhood while headed to a restaurant with family and friends. Border Patrol and ICE officers, Garcia said, stopped them and asked for papers.

After spending two months in Henderson at a cost to taxpayers of more than $6,000, Garcia was released. She has since been granted a work permit under deferred action.

“The city’s profits are dependent on inhuman immigration policies, and that’s what makes this appalling,” said Bob Fulkerson, director of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, an advocacy group for immigrants. “This inhumane rounding up of fathers and mothers and families and throwing them into these inhumane prison conditions for civil penalties has to stop.”

Since 2011, federal agency directives and executive orders to focus on criminal immigrants have lowered the chances of people like Ledesma and Garcia being detained. Several immigration attorneys in Las Vegas said they have seen a marked improvement from ICE in using alternative monitoring methods, such as GPS-enabled ankle bracelets.

Rex Velasquez, Ledesma’s attorney, said his client most likely would not be detained today. The rate of apprehensions, Velasquez said, has gone down in the past two years, especially for immigrants who have no criminal charges. However, he noted authorities still were detaining immigrants based on often years-old lesser charges, such as loitering or driving under the influence.

“It bothers me as a taxpayer that revenue is being generated by locking people up. It’s a sad commentary on the immigration system in general and society in general,” Velasquez said. “Using detention as a revenue generator was never intended. On one side of things, it’s like, ‘Gee that’s great for the city of Henderson,’ but on the flip side, it’s sad that it’s a major source of revenue.”


Under President Barack Obama, ICE has been directed to focus on detaining and deporting immigrants with criminal records and those deemed threats to public safety. However, the lIllegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 expanded the number of offenses that could lead to deportation. In many cases, ICE has no discretion on whom to detain.

“Private corporations lobbied very hard to get Congress to toughen the laws,” said Peter Ashman, a Las Vegas immigration attorney and head of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “A lot of it was 9/11 and hysteria over immigrants, which was somewhat understandable but not based in fact. Before that, in 1996, they made a whole new class of immigration violations, and that created a need for detention facilities.”

Immigrant detention by the numbers

  • 400,000 The approximate number of immigrants detained annually by the federal government
  • $2 billion The amount spent on immigrant detention annually
  • $100 million The annual amount ICE budgets for alternative monitoring methods, such as GPS-enabled ankle monitors or check-in programs with ICE officials
  • $120 Average rate the federal government pays local, state, and private facilities to house detained immigrants
  • $102 The daily rate the Henderson Detention Center receives to house federal detainees, the vast majority immigrants
  • $29 million Amount spent in 2009 — during the Great Recession — by city of Henderson to expand and renovate its jail, adding 250 beds to the existing 293
  • $10 million-$11 million The amount of revenue the city of Henderson brings in annually from its contract to house federal detainees. The revenue is more than double the city’s expenses
  • 220 The current average daily population of immigrant detainees at Henderson Detention Center
  • 34,000 The congressionally mandated quota of immigrant detainees that ICE must hold each day
  • 26 Percent of immigrants in detention who have legal representation
  • 38 Percent of immigrants for whom ICE has issued a “detainer,” informing authorities the person is wanted in federal custody, who have a criminal conviction
  • SOURCES: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, City of Henderson, Department of Homeland Security, American Bar Association, TRAC Immigration Project of Syracuse University

In 2006, as part of appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security, Congress designated a “bed mandate,” forcing ICE to fill 34,000 detention beds each day or risk cuts in its budget.

"The quota is totally unprecedented. No law enforcement agency has ever had a quota set in stone like this,” said Silky Shah, interim executive director of the Detention Watch Network, a Washington-based national advocacy group. “The whole detention system is a colossal waste of taxpayer money.”

Shah noted the primary reason for detention was to ensure detainees show for court proceedings. Pilot programs exploring alternatives to detention, such as checking in at ICE field offices regularly, have shown 96 percent compliance rates, she said.

Recent data on immigration “detainers” — when ICE requests a local law enforcement agency hold at their facility a person whom ICE wants to take into custody — show 38 percent of those subjects have a criminal conviction on their record. According to the TRAC Immigration Project, less than 11 percent of those held under detainers in the first half of 2013 “met the agency’s stated goal of targeting individuals who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security.”


In early 2013, a team of law students under supervision of UNLV law professor Fatma Marouf started interviewing immigrants jailed at the Henderson center.

Since then, the UNLV team has interviewed 29 inmates who consistently have described similar questionable acts in the center, including officers hurling racial epithets and retaliating against them for complaints and medical care that took weeks or months to materialize.

In an October 2011 U.S. Office of Detention Oversight report on the Henderson Detention Center, federal inspectors found the jail to be “well-managed and in compliance with the areas and standards inspected.” The report also detailed 31 “deficiencies” regarding federal standards.

Many of the issues raised in the federal report came up in the law clinic’s interviews with detainees. For example, in 2011 the federal inspectors asked the Henderson jail staff to post a notice by monitored phones detailing a detainee’s right to obtain an unmonitored call to a lawyer. The law clinic reported there are still no posted signs.

“We are held to a pretty rigorous set of standards. … After the ODO report, we worked with the office to make sure we cured those deficiencies. The rules are posted by the phone,” Cranor said. “We are not sure what (the UNLV students) are citing in their report. We have to work with ICE. We’ll work with them to make sure we are in compliance with requirements we are held to.”

Detainees reported they were threatened and sometimes physically forced to sign documents they did not understand and had legal mail opened and inspected without their supervision, a policy violation.

Immigrant detainees are not entitled to legal counsel and, according to Detention Watch, more than 80 percent go through detention without representation. Detainees are supposed to have access to a law library to research their case. Some detainees in Henderson said they were allowed to use the law library only in the middle of the night, from midnight to 7 a.m.

The law library at the center is a computer equipped with LexisNexis, a database of legal documents. Asked whether an immigrant would be able to navigate the system without training, Velasquez said it would be “impossible.”

“There was a cumulative effect of denying counsel to the detainees,” Marouf said. “Some were denied phone calls, their legal mail is opened or lost, and they have to choose between building their own case or sleep.”

The majority of people in immigration proceedings do not have legal representation, Marouf noted, and the issues inside the center further obstruct a detainee’s ability to argue their case.

Not all detainees had complaints about the Henderson jail. Ledesma and Garcia said it was nicer than the other facilities where they had been kept.

“The actual facility is nice and clean,” Ledesma wrote on a makeshift journal kept during her detention. “Marlen (Garcia) said the others call this place ‘Disneyland.’ We get three meals a day with lock down right after (dinner). During the day we have common room time when we are free to watch a movie, shower and call.”

Immigration attorney Peter Ashman said he had never experienced problems among his clients at the Henderson jail and often has found the jail staff to be helpful and accommodating.

“Of course the detainees are not happy to be there,” Ashman said. “Part of the problem is most are not criminals; they are people with status issues. So these are noncriminals being held with criminals. It’s scary and frustrating, and a lot of them — even if they have a claim to residency with merit — choose to go home over being locked up in jail.”

ICE officials, offering a one-day snapshot of the current immigrant detainee population at the Henderson jail, said they are statutorily obligated to hold more than three-quarters of the current detainees because of their case histories.

On Nov. 19, according to ICE, 223 immigrants were detained in Henderson. Of those, 108 had been convicted of an aggravated felony or multiple felonies, and 102 either had a felony conviction or multiple misdemeanor convictions on their records.

If ICE did not use the Henderson Detention Center, the agency would be forced to use facilities in Utah, California or Arizona, "distancing detainees from their relatives and legal counsel and substantially increasing ICE’s transportation costs," ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in an email.


Interviews with former detainees conducted by the Sun turned up complaints similar to those outlined in the UNLV Law Clinic’s report.

Jorge Espinosa, 50, came to the United States in 1986 from Mexico. He entered legally with a visa and eventually obtained a work permit. In 2001 he wanted to apply for permanent residency but says an unscrupulous lawyer who filed improper paperwork and took his money duped him. When a judge issued a deportation order, Espinosa was on his own.

He has now spent more than half his life in the United States and has never left in the 27 years he’s been here. In August 2011 he was arrested outside his house. Jailed in the Henderson Detention Center for 23 days before his release, he says he was given several injections without anyone ever telling him what they were. He also says he was continually harassed to sign legal documents against his will.

“I always followed the laws and paid taxes,” said Espinosa, who has depleted his savings on lawyers to no avail. “I was defrauded by that lawyer. Now I’m treated like a criminal with my own tax money. Animals have more rights, and they don’t pay taxes.”

Since 2011, the Henderson facility has undergone six reviews or inspections, according to ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley. Those reviews include annual inspections by outside contractors and an on-site visit by representatives from the Department of Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties division. It has always been found in compliance.

Asked to respond to the specific allegations raised by the UNLV students, namely that ICE officials abused the detainees and coerced them to sign documents, Haley said ICE was “currently reviewing the report.”

Henderson spokesman Cranor noted the UNLV report holds the jail to detention standards above those the city is obligated to meet in its contract with ICE. The center is expected to comply with national detention standards set in 2000 — not updated standards written in 2008 or 2011 that provide for higher benchmarks of care and safety. Haley said ICE was moving with the updated standards from the top down, starting with facilities with the largest detainee populations.

Shah said the issues raised in the UNLV Law Clinic report could be found at detention facilities across the country.

“The problem is that oversight and regulations are toothless,” Shah said. “There is absolutely no third-party oversight. There are some basic standards that facilities are supposed to abide by, but they are not codified. Even if they are not up to standards, because it’s not codified they won’t lose their contracts.”

In early November, the team sent the report to the Las Vegas ICE field office and the Henderson Detention Center. There has not been a response. The law students, meanwhile, say the procedures for interviewing immigrant detainees have been changed, against operating standards, since they provided copies of the report. It is unclear whether they will be able to interview detainees in the future.


Today, the UNLV law school team will join with local immigration reform advocates for a protest rally outside the Henderson Detention Center and address the Henderson City Council.

They are requesting an independent audit of the jail and have been joined by organizations such as the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, ACLU of Nevada and Immigration Reform for Nevada.

“Henderson made the deal, and now it’s part of their responsibility to ensure that they are doing business in a humane and professional manner,” PLAN director Bob Fulkerson said. “You cannot say that about this detention facility. It’s not humane and it’s not professional, and now that the city has been informed about this, they have a responsibility to help change it. They can still protect their investment. They don’t have to walk away from it. But they have to get involved and be part of the solution.”

Cranor said the city still was reviewing the report and would address issues raised with ICE to ensure compliance. He noted the jail already receives independent audits from federal and private inspectors.

The immigration reform legislation being debated in Congress this year would have allowed ICE more leeway in determining who gets detained, but efforts to pass reform recently stalled.

Martin Martinez and Jorge Espinosa are due to be deported in January. Martinez, who works two jobs, will have to leave his wife and son behind. Espinosa’s wife is also facing a deportation order; one of their children is a U.S. citizen, and two others have won legal status through deferred action.

“I don’t need anything from the government, and I’m not asking for anything,” Martinez said. “All I need is the opportunity to work, the opportunity to maintain my family and not be a public charge. If I leave my wife and child, they will not be able to afford the apartment and food. They are going to be asking for help from the government. What has been accomplished then?”

This story has been updated to include information on the criminal records of the immigrant detainee population at Henderson Detention Center.

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