Asylum-Seekers Denounce Detention Facilities

Gay and transgender youths who spent more than three months in a Southern California detention facility after seeking asylum in the U.S. from Mexico decry the conditions in the centers.

Yordi Cancino arrived in the U.S. as a young child, went on to graduate salutatorian from Jackie Robinson High School, and said he was accepted to UCLA.

But as an illegal immigrant, Cancino said he couldn’t afford to go to college, and decided to return to his native Mexico.

In March, the 21-year-old turned himself in at the border, seeking asylum to return to the U.S., saying they had been beaten and stalked during their time in Mexico - targeted because of their sexual orientation.

Cancino, who is gay, and Rai Villalba, 18, a transgender woman, spent three months in detention before being released while their cases are evaluated.

Both appeared at a press conference Monday for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles, a nonprofit group lobbying for immigration reform.

Both Yordi and Rai said they were ridiculed while at the private detention facility in San Diego where they were detained. They described deplorable conditions, and said they felt compelled to speak out on behalf of the children that have been pouring into similar facilities as a deepening crisis has brought tens of thousands of illegal immigrant children across the border this year.

"At the detention facility, they don’t give you love," Cancino said. "They don’t respect you. The only thing they do is they try to put you down as much as they can. If you see those pictures of those kids, that’s sad."

CHIRLA is advocating for the end of mandatory detentions for people crossing the border illegally, reunification of children with their families, a halt on deportations, the end of privatized detention facilities and for legal representation to be provided for minors.

There has been a massive increase in the number of children and adolescents making the dangerous desert trek alone, without family, officials say, sparking what President Obama deemed an "urgent humanitarian crisis.”

In 2013 the federal government housed about 25,000 minors who were going through deportation proceedings along.

This year, that number is expected to swell to 60,000.

"They’re just kids. They have no idea what they’re putting themselves into," Villalba said.

The children have been housed in a growing number of temporary shelters, including converted barracks at Naval Base Ventura County.

Government officials have opened the doors to the facility to journalists, to show the conditions the children - some as young as five years old - are living in.

But CHIRLA spokesman Jorge-Mario Cabrera said many of the detention centers are sub-par.

"The conditions inside these detention centers are not clear. They’re not clean and they need to change," he said ahead of Tuesday’s press conference. 

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