Hunger strikes at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Los Fresnos over the past couple of years didn’t arise out of a vacuum. To hear former detention guard Tony Hefner tell it, they were preceded by years of vicious prisoner treatment, rampant sexual harassment and abuse of both detainees and staff, and mysterious arrangements with bail-bonds operators linked with modern-day slavery networks.
The tension within the pages of Between the Fences hinges on the narrator, son of an undocumented Mexican laborer, trained as a protestant minister. Hefner invites the readers to share in his own limitations and frustrations as he struggles to find — then to maintain — the courage to challenge the corruption in the face of indifferent-to-hostile federal agencies.
Fences rushes the reader from one display of heart-sinking brutality to another as Hefner chronicles his own sometimes-clumsy coming to terms with his experiences as a victim of childhood abuse. After surviving the violence of his stepfather, Hefner moved from Ohio to the Rio Grande Valley with dreams of opening a Christian ministry for Hispanic children. He quickly ran headlong into the twisted values of this world as his ministry teetered on the brink of financial ruin while the best-paying jobs were found in the most spiritually inhospitable environment imaginable: the immigration detention known as Port Isabel in the 1980s.
Your story seemed as much about finding healing – almost salvation – in your stand as a whistleblower.
I think by being a whistle-blower, I think it was all out of revenge (laughs).
Out of revenge?
Yeah. Out of revenge of being quiet for so many years. It was everything I wanted was wrapped up right there `in the church mission`. I was reliving a childhood I never had, through the Hispanic children there.
This whole aspect of race had such a personal impact as you as a child. How did racism affect you as a child and become a part of your life story?
I guess it separated me. Because I was always looking for identity.
Because you were in the Anglo world?
Right. A very prejudiced Anglo world. … As I got older it got uglier.
When you were in first grade and the teacher was asking kids about their families and you said, ‘Well, my dad’s a wetback.’
Yeah, right, because I thought that was something to be proud of, you know. Because I kept hearing “He’s a wetback. He’s a wetback,” and discriminating against my own ancestors. I thought that was something to be proud of, and so I just came out with, “My dad was a wetback” like he just sailed the ocean or something. Something really terrific. Then I got home and it was like we just went through a tornado. I mean, things were thrown and just fighting back and forth because I had let it out of the bag that my real father was a Hispanic.
And your step-dad, as I read in your book, he would beat you and use those racial slurs.
I was a nigger turned inside-out, that’s all Mexicans are. Don’t you ever be proud of the fact that. . . . You should be thankful that I gave you my last name. People look down on you.
How many years were you subject to that message and how did you get away?
It was hard for me to leave home because I had so much responsibility, and he was part of my responsibility because I had to take care of him.
Was he an alcoholic?
He was an alcoholic. Plus he had these nervous breakdowns. … I had to make sure he took his medication. I’m talking about a 10- or 11-year-old boy. He’d knock the medication out of my hands. I’d try to sweet talk with him. Try to reason with him. If he said I was dumb and stupid, I had to agree with him. They used to take him to a hospital where he could have shock treatments. It was just really, really terrible.
And threatened to kill you.
I never had any way of defending myself. And this process went on until I was about 17 years old.
You left to go get religious training?
I started going to church then. And that’s where I realized people weren’t prejudiced. That people really loved people and `I saw` a whole different realm of things … treating you like you was a human being. That’s why whenever I seen this going on at that detention facility, all these flashbacks kept coming back.
These poor, immigrant people are just trying to make a living, trying to please people, and still try to take care of their families. A lot of them are just migrant workers. I talked to a lot of them in the detention facility who knew English real well, because my Spanish was terrible. They’re just hard-working people who … for hundreds of years they’ve been crossing the border. And they come over here and they work in our fields and they pick our fruits. … I mean, those are jobs that most Americans don’t want. Oh yeah, they want the supervisor job where they can boss the people around, where they don’t have to get out there and pick the fruit and work in some of these different places.
Describe for me how you came to work at the detention center. You had this goal of opening a children’s ranch, specifically for Hispanic children.
Our funds were running low there at the ranch. We didn’t charge anything for the kids to come. We supplied the food and the games and the horses for the kids, the hay rides. Everything was free. And sometimes their parents would come. And sometimes their grandparents would come. We wanted them to feel comfortable. When I started working at the detention facility it was to help to pay for some of this stuff. It was the best-paying job in that area. I was making good money as a welder, but not as good as a detention officer.
What did you see there?
`Detainees` didn’t have washing machines … so sometimes they had to wear their uniforms for a couple of weeks. The detainees had to lay in that type of environment. It was just terrible. Human waste littered the floors. Sometimes the toilets would be plugged up and detainees would have to urinate in different places in the bathroom. It was so bad; it was like walking through a slaughter house, where you had that smell of death. It was like corruption. No way out.
The ICE officers, if they were having a bad day, they made sure they made those detainees suffer just as bad as they did.
Now you’re in Los Fresnos and people take you for a white person. You didn’t share your identity with people.
When I got over there to the detention facility … my adopted last name led them to believe I was Anglo. Of course, I got the respect from that I never got at home. My mother always told me, she said don’t ever tell anybody. “Even the Hispanic people would never respect you because you’re a half-breed.” She said, “You think your people love you over in Mexico but … they don’t love you because you’re not pure Mexican.”
Describe the range of abuses you saw while you were there. There were staff raping women … Women that got pregnant were immediately deported?
If they came forward and said they were pregnant they were, “Well, you didn’t get pregnant here” and they’d say “Oh, yes I did, this officer and that officer,” and they would name officers. They said, “Well, we’re gonna get rid of those guys.” They go ahead and ship the mother out of the country. Hurry up the process. … I really believe they were giving them the day-after pill. I think they were testing those pills.
It was really, really bad. Girls would get into the camp and the officers would be having them go up to Building One and they’d be having sex with them. Next thing you know, they’re taking these white pills. And they’d be menstruating …
Who gave them the pills.?
The doctors and nurses there. This one lady, they didn’t know she was pregnant, and they gave her some of the white pills to take and she miscarried her baby.
One that you wrote the least about, but haunted me the most, involved the bail bondsman. This notion they were bonding out these undocumented residents into human slavery.
I know. Isn’t that terrible? It haunts me too. There is probably more information pertaining to that in my first manuscript. But I think since they wanted to narrow it down, they kind of got away from some of that stuff. It brought back so many of the things the United States is against. … That it’s an everyday issue with these people. They are used and abused by the system, even though the system is not for that. … The power is what really drives these people. That power is to make money and to use these people as human instruments in order to get what they want.
`Port Isabel’s administrators` would make arrangements outside of the detention facility to get jobs for these people, which was illegal, and probably in some sweatboxes. They could be prostitutes right now.
A lot of times it didn’t sound like ‘jobs.’
They had to have sex with him. Once he got them bonded out, then they were supposed to have sex with him. That was part of the agreement.
When it came down to trying to get an investigation, how protective was the INS of this private firm?
They were very protective of them. I believe there were illegal things going on that the INS was getting a kickback from. For example, they were charging the officers for insurance that they were not getting. There was no insurance. … They took the women out `of Port Isabel`. Recently, in the past year, there was a male security guard that would line up 10 of these women, have them strip down, and he would fondle them.
Your book: what are you doing to promote it?
I hope to be down there some time this year. Anything to promote it. I’m hoping to get back to Texas so I can be face to face with people, so they can see I’m sincere, and that I have a great concern.
As far as the situation today, is this still a relevant message?
The more I talk the more people are going to understand. The more people read my book, they are going to have a clear vision about what goes on in their own back yards. I know there’s a lot of people that live in the Valley that do not know what is really going on in these detention facilities. If they did, they would rise up.
Between the Fences: Before Guantánamo, There was Port Isabel Service Processing Center
by Tony Hefner
Seven Stories Press
$19.95, 286 pages (paperback)