INTO more

Culture
To Be Gay, Engaged, and Separated by ICE Detention at Christmas

Osny Sorto-Vasquez is nowhere and everywhere all at once.

His family, including fiance Chance Kidd, set up this year’s Thanksgiving picture to show a group of 11 and a plate of food with no one to eat it.

“We left an empty chair at the table for him, and it’s so sad,” Chance tells INTO as he drives out of Los Angeles and toward the Mojave Desert where his partner is detained. “It does not feel like real life.”

Every Sunday, Chance makes a four-hour car trip to the Adelanto ICE Processing Center for a one-hour visit with Osny. On the second Sunday in December, he takes me with him. The rest of LA is hungover from holiday parties. On this night, families will light candles for the last night of Hanukkah while Chance drives home in the dark and Osny debates between noodles and mac n’ cheese for his dinner from the commissary.

It’s been 67 days since Chance and Osny shared a bed or fought over the thermostat or hit the gym together. It’s been 67 days since Osny could sit down to a meal with his mom and siblings, or vote on which holiday movie they would watch (they always pick The Grinch and Home Alone).   

Osny entered Adelanto on October 3. He came to the U.S. from Honduras when he was nine years old and has been protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But a misdemeanor DUI charge has threatened his DACA status, and he a missed a court date as a child when his mother was sick, further complicating his case.

In October, Osny says, ICE agents showed up at his house posing as police. They told his family that someone was using their address to ship contraband and that Osny needed to come home from Chance’s apartment to deal with the situation. When Osny came out to meet the officers, they told him they were ICE and arrested him.

Osny spent his 24th birthday in detention at Adelanto.

“I still have his birthday present waiting for him,” Chance says. By some miracle, he might be able to give it to him for Christmas.

The drive to Adelanto is two hours that feel like a lifetime because the landscape between the desert and Los Angeles is about as similar as the moon and Paris. Drive north out of Los Angeles, and urbanization quickly fades into literal dust. Dirt orange mountains lift around a winding highway.

Chance points out snow-capped mountains in the distance. A “barren wasteland with snow on top,” he remarks.

“It feels like you’re driving to the edge of the earth, and then you fall off and hit Adelanto,” he says.

He hates this drive, and he says it over and over. It’s an entire day, a waste of time, save the hour he actually sees his fiance. And Osny, as much as he loves the visit, gets the painful reminder that life is cycling on beyond detention.

Chance is 26, a property manager for student housing downtown that can only be described as palatial. There’s an enclosed courtyard with jumping fountains, a sand volleyball court, a rooftop pool, and a music practice room with a baby grand piano. He lives on-site. He hails from rural Arkansas, from a family of little means. But he’s done well for himself, especially for a young person. We’re driving to Adelanto in his Porsche.

Osny has a steady career that’s been put on hold. He’s a registered nursing assistant often working overnight. His patient, who is quite attached to him, thinks Osny is off traveling at the moment.

Chance pulls into the city of Adelanto around mid-day. A sign proclaims that Adelanto is “THE CITY WITH UNLIMITED POSSIBILITIES.” The surrounding landscape is a flat expanse of desert grass and power lines with the occasional subdivision or odd house thrown in.

There are a few ways to get to the detention center. One is along a three-mile dirt road, strewn with discarded La-Z-Boy recliners and toilet seats. Another is paved, but in dire need of resurfacing, covered in gravel brought in from recent rains. Even Chance’s luxury car rattles unsteadily over the last mile.

We arrive at the parking lot of the detention center to find it unusually crowded for a Sunday, undoubtedly the upshot of the holiday season.

“Home sweet hell, here we are,” Chance says as he turns the car off.

The desert is at least 10 degrees colder than L.A., and Chance pops on a leather jacket. He’s wearing white pants and monk strap black shoes. When he first started coming here, guards assumed he was an attorney. He’s one of the few white people to walk through the door. Now they know him.

Inside the detention center, the waiting area has been decorated for Christmas. A fake Christmas tree is set up against the wall. Plastic ornaments hang from the ceiling. We check in with guards at the front and tell them we are there to see “Sorto.” We are asked to provide a relationship to “Sorto.” Chance says he is the fiance, and I enter myself as “friend” to evade the hurdles to entering as a reporter, but this also means I can’t bring a notebook or phone to record our conversation.

We trade our IDs for badges and a key to a locker. We remove everything metal, our wallets, and our phones and lock them up and sit back down and wait.

Waits at Adelanto are typically 20 to 30 minutes, but today guards usher everyone through en masse just a few minutes after check-in. About 20 of us step through a metal detector, endure a wand-over and turn out all of our pockets.

A family of four two parents and two little kids  is stopped at the detector and told they have to leave one behind because only three are allowed to visit. There is an agonizing moment while they debate which parent will be left back while the rest of us are ushered down a long white hallway to a holding area. A sign boasts that the facility has gone six days without a workplace accident.

We are let inside and locked in for a few minutes before the door to visitation opens.  A guard stands on a raised platform and directs every family on where to sit. He regularly moves people around, and Chance and I can’t figure out a pattern or reasoning for the constant shuffling of families.

The room is a fluorescent-lit sitting area full of plastic chairs and small round tables. There are three plastic chairs on one end of the table and one on the other end, making it clear that the detainee is to sit across the from three allotted visitors.

Because we’ve been allowed to enter so early, Osny is among the last two to come out, and before he can rush to Chance, he has to check in with the guard.

At 5’4, Osny is the smallest detainee in the group, and he practically drowns in his orange jumpsuit (orange as opposed to blue signifies he has criminal charges the DUI). His pant legs have been rolled up twice, and they’re still too big for him.

When he’s done checking in, the guard tells go us sit at the other end of the room. Osny runs to Chance, who scoops him up and carries him in a hug down to the place they’ve been ordered to sit. They kiss, and I wonder if people are watching this queer love in ICE detention, but no one even glances up. Some of the detained men are crying into the faces of their loved ones. This visit is one-hour only. Who has time to worry about other people?

Osny immediately wants to know about the weather outside and remarks that we have traveled in the rain. The skies are grey but clear, and we tell him that.

Chance likes to call Osny an old soul, with wisdom beyond his years, but seeing him in detention, it is hard not see a kid in a jumpsuit. It’s not just that he’s small or that he looks his age  there’s a lightness about him, an energy that betrays youth.

Because Osny has been able to call me from detention, I already know a bit about what life inside looks like for him, and I am able to quote him despite not having a recorder or notebook with me for our visit.

Osny has told me on the phone that he’s scared for his life because he thinks that transgender asylum-seeker Roxsana Hernandez died here. I explain to him that Hernandez actually died at Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, but Osny’s fears are not ungrounded. Adelanto had three deaths last year alone, although none of them were LGBTQ people.

The facility is run by private prison contractor GEO Group, which has faced a laundry list of criticisms from human rights advocates and lawmakers. Last year the Los Angeles Times documented a string of deaths and suicide attempts at Adelanto since 2011 when the facility was converted into an ICE detention center.

The Associated Press also reported that GEO Group lobbied Texas lawmakers on a bill to hold children in ICE detention with their parents, circumventing a federal judge’s ruling that children couldn’t be locked up for more than 20 days. In 2015, more than two dozen members of congress sent a letter to federal officials pressing for an investigation of Adelanto.

Osny reports almost no anti-gay discrimination from his fellow detainees, but guards have proven to be more problematic at times.

He recalls an incident Nov. 8 when a pipe burst in another detainee’s room. In the chaos, a sergeant started barking orders and referring to detainees using vulgar language, including Osny.

“I told him very respectfully to not address me in that way,” says Osny. “He called me ‘weirdo’ because of my sexual orientation.”

The sergeant ordered Osny into solitary, he says.

“I was terrified. I was so scared,” Osny tells INTO. “He was, at one point, ready to hurt me, he got so close. He was ready to pepper spray me.”

Osny will also talk endlessly about how bad the food at Adelanto is. He’s lost seven pounds in two months.

Adelanto serves breakfast at 4am and then lunch at 1:30 in the afternoon.

“That’s nine-plus hours later that we go without eating,” he says, adding that many can’t wake for breakfast that early, so it’s longer. “I don’t eat some of the food that they give because it’s so bad.”

He recalls Thanksgiving dinner. The highlights include four pieces of sandwich bread, one piece of bologna, a sandwich cookie, and four carrot sticks. He ate the bologna.

Chance tells me in the car that every time Osny calls and he happens to be eating, he puts his food down. He doesn’t want Osny to have to hear him enjoy food, and feels guilty about it.

Osny also has complaints about medical care in detention.

ICE has refused him his HIV-prevention medication, even though he has had a prescription for three years, he says. It also took three weeks for the agency to refill his allergy medication, which left him sick.

“When I have those down moments, I just look back and remind myself that I do have beautiful things to be grateful for and that he is one of them,” Osny tells me on the phone. “I have a beautiful man that is doing everything he can and fighting for me.”

Osny has poured nearly all of his time in detention into working on other people’s immigration cases, translating for friends who need it and using Chance as his personal Google assistant (Adelanto detainees don’t have internet access). His successes mean he watches his friends leave while he continues to wait out his case. Several have left, some in part due to his efforts. One with DACA status, like Osny, was deported.

Chance jokes he could become an immigration attorney at this point, for all the work he has done on Osny’s case, and all of the cases they have taken on together for others at Adelanto.

Chance can’t bring Osny anything while he’s in detention, but he can send paper, and he does so faithfully twice a week. Osny will get the Thanksgiving photo in the mail mid-December. It’s on a sheet of other pictures Chance printed out and shipped to him. ICE guards will inspect the mail and then watch Osny open it.

The two also send love letters. It’s romance across cinder block walls, a way to nurture what is still a budding courtship, a thing to show their kids later.

Chance and Osny have been together just eight months. They met on Grindr, and what started as a casual affair immediately turned serious.

“Osny is somebody that just melted my heart, and I’m not that type of person,” Chance says. “I’m not somebody that would ever fall in love quickly. My story on paper is something that I would ridicule friends for, falling in love that fast.”

As fast as they fell in love, as serious as things grew in the months before ICE detained Osny, the precariousness of his situation fast-tracked everything and robbed them of the proverbial honeymoon period. When ICE showed up and took Osny, they had a choice, and they chose each other.

Chance and Osny decided to get married during a conversation on a recorded phone line. They plan to marry in Adelanto in front of the one witness their marriage approval says they are allowed. Osny won’t get to wear his ring in detention.

Osny could be deported to Honduras, a country he hasn’t visited since he was a boy, where he has no close relatives and is at risk for violence because he’s gay.

Osny spends a lot of time asking about Chance, worrying that the drive is wearing him down, that all of the work on his case is overwhelming.

Still, Osny is pure positivity. I ask him what he usually does for Christmas, and his face lights up as he tells me that he cooks his famous chicken sandwiches on Christmas Eve and that his mom makes 100 tamales that will last them through March. Everyone opens presents at midnight. Two years ago, they got an all-white tree with snow.

“It was so beautiful,” he says over and over again.

At no point does he land on the hard reality that he may very well spend Christmas in detention. On Wednesday, his DUI charge was vacated. He will be retried and his legal team will now argue that ICE has no justification for holding him.

What if he’s out in time for his first Christmas? What if he and Chance marry outside the walls of Adelanto?

This year the Christmas tree will be green, Osny tells us. He’s sitting in the single plastic chair, his eyes wide. A man at the next table over, also in an orange jumpsuit, is crying in front of a little girl across the table.

This year’s Christmas tree will also be magnificent, Osny continues. There is talk of adding a pink tree, too. Osny wants to bring back the white tree because it even had snow.

“It was so beautiful,” he repeats. He isn’t even looking at Chance or me anymore. He’s not even in Adelanto.

ICE media relations did not respond to a request to comment for this story.


Kate Sosin 

Kate Sosin is a trans news and features reporter and former associate editor of Chicago’s Windy City Times.

twitter