The Rev. Tony Hefner has spent years alerting government officials about the abuse and corruption he witnessed while working as a security guard at a Texas detention center for illegal immigrants in the late 1980s. Hefner’s recently published memoir about this experience — Between the Fences: Before Guantanamo, There was the Port Isabel Service Processing Center — details the torture, sexual abuse and drug smuggling he witnessed there and implicates his former co-workers.
The Port Isabel Service Processing Center made headlines earlier this year when detainees organized a series of hunger strikes protesting mental and physical abuse, lack of access to legal resources and the frequency of transfers between facilities. The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement acknowledged the need to reform the current detention system in a 2009 report.
Hefner took a few moments to speak with the Tribune last week about his experience working at Port Isabel, his struggle to alert government officials to corruption and how he would like to see the detention management system reformed. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
TT: Can you describe the working environment at Port Isabel when you were employed there and your fellow employees' attitude toward the detainees?
Hefner: Their attitude towards the detainees was really terrible. These ICE officers — they were immigration officers at the time, INS officers — mistreated them something terrible. If the detainee needed soap or a towel or had a little complaint of some nature, they would chase [him] out of the office and wouldn’t listen to [him], wouldn’t make out any complaint papers or anything or file any complaint for [him]. [He was] treated — regardless of what country [he was] from — disrespectfully.
TT: Can you describe some of the abuses and the corruption?
Hefner: They were afraid of the ICE officers. If they came up and asked a question [and] the ICE officer wasn’t in a good mood, or if he had a fight with his wife that day, sometimes they would just shove him around and push him out of the office or try to instigate a fight in the dorm between detainees. Tell them, "Well, one detainee said this about you and this one here said something about you" — trying to provoke things in the dorm to make a hostile environment.
TT: You’ve spent the last 20 years alerting government officials about what you witnessed. Can you give me a brief [window on] this experience and the current state of investigation?
Hefner: I gave some information to a government official with the new Department of Homeland Security. They asked for a copy of the manuscript. I sent them three chapters because I thought, well, if they’re going to be interested enough to read this much they’ll want the rest of the information. But they never contacted me, and this was back in 2006. Karl Rove read it — I did get a letter from the White House telling me that, and that letter is on my website. ... They said it was going to be sent to the new Department of Homeland Security. Well, I waited and waited and waited, and nothing was ever brought to my attention that they received anything. ... The only thing that they knew is that I was publishing a book and that I named quite a few people who were responsible for some of the deaths that were going on and some of the beatings and the torture of some of the detainees.
Audio Interview: Rev. Tony Hefner
TT: What would you like to see government officials do about what you witnessed at the detention center?
Hefner: I would like to see these people treated in a humane way. They are people. They are human beings. They don't need to be treated like this. I worked at the detention facility eight years gathering information, because of my contacts with government officials who were feeding me information [and] security supervisors and other detention ICE officers who were on my side, who realized that I wasn't afraid to stand up against these people. It wasn't the government I was going after or fighting. It was the corruption of these government officials who thought they were above the law because they worked for the government. I don't care what department they work in, the president of the United States doesn't have a right to stand behind breaking our laws and thinking because he works for the government that he's not subject to discipline. These guys took advantage of the women, they got some of these women pregnant, they sent them back to their countries. And I said, listen, send those kids back here. Let those men support those kids. This has happened on government property, and it was considered rape. Anybody [who] was forced into a sexual act of any kind inside a government facility like this was considered raped.
TT: Because you stood up against what you saw, you have received death threats and have been forced out of the state — is that correct?
Hefner: Yeah. Well, the death threats came from the people who were smuggling the cocaine on our INS buses. I didn't realize until afterwards, but the death threats came from the drug cartel, because they were afraid that I was going to open a can of worms — that an investigation was going to come in and expose what they were doing when they were smuggling the drugs from check point to check point in our INS buses.
TT: There was a large public outcry against the abuses at Abu Ghraib, not only from the public but from government officials. Why do you think the [situation at the] detention center is receiving less attention?
Hefner: Because they don't care. What happened in Iraq, in the prisons there, that the public read about in the newspapers and [has] seen pictures of, are the very same things that I witnessed inside this detention center, or else [I] came in contact with people who did.
TT: So you think that people just don't care because these detainees are —
Hefner: — low-class people. They have no rights whatsoever. Once they're in a government facility like that, they have to surrender and be subject to anything the officer dishes out to them.
TT: What are your opinions on border security and Arizona's new immigration reform?
Hefner: America is an example, and we have set an example. We should continually set an example. But we're not a refuge. We cannot just open our borders and allow people to come over. ... Other countries are successful in gaining their liberty and their freedom, but if people keep coming over here, they are not going to do anything for their country. Freedom is not free. You have to fight for it. We have service men and women today over in Afghanistan and Iraq who are keeping our country free today to keep the terrorists from coming over here.
TT: Would you say that you believe in strong border security?
Hefner: Yes, I have to acknowledge that I do.