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A friendship that Carrie Kemp struck up in Guatemala a decade ago recently offered a jolting glimpse into a U.S. immigration detention system that some critics deem dysfunctional.

Kemp, a Twin Cities author and retired Catholic pastoral minister, spent much of this winter scrambling to help a man named Bernardo navigate that system after she discovered he had spent months in detention, including time in a private East Coast facility, even though he was not fighting his deportation.

The Kemps set up a phone account for Bernardo, lined up an attorney and at one point offered to pay for his plane ticket home.

“We felt Bernardo became a commodity in a system that is stacked against people like him,” Kemp said. “As an American citizen, I was sick to my stomach.”

Nationally, a system of for-profit facilities that contract with the U.S. government to detain immigrants has come under scrutiny in recent years, both for its cost and for the risk that the companies have an incentive to hold detainees longer than necessary.

Kemp first visited Guatemala 11 years ago, when her son and daughter-in-law traveled there to meet two newly adopted children. Eager to learn more about the country and their grandchildren’s Mayan heritage, the Kemps have returned each year since, occasionally helping nonprofits that work with the indigenous population.

On one visit they sat next to Bernardo, his wife and their four children during mass in a village church. After the service, they struck up a conversation and took photos. Later, the Kemps mailed the Guatemalan couple their first family picture. They visited again the following year.

But the next year, Bernardo was gone, and the family seemed reluctant to explain why. Eventually, the Kemps learned he had made a tough decision: He paid a smuggler to help him cross into the United States illegally after extortionists targeted his small village store.

Several years ago, the Kemps visited Bernardo in New York, where immigrant laborers were powering a massive construction boom. For a long time, he pored over the pictures they had taken with his family during their Guatemalan trips.

In September, the Kemps got a frantic call from Bernardo’s daughter. She had learned from his landlord that Bernardo had been arrested after an altercation in his apartment building. Eventually, authorities transferred him to an immigration detention facility.

With help from Tim Regan, a retired Twin Cities lawyer, the Kemps connected with an East Coast attorney who advised Bernardo to sign a document stating he did not contest his deportation. Still, as Regan puts it, “You’d think volunteer departure would be a piece of cake, but it’s not.”

Kemp says she repeatedly called the detention facility to check on Bernardo’s case, but her messages went unreturned. Finally, she sent an angry fax and heard back from a staff member explaining that Bernardo would be put on a flight back to Guatemala. No, the man explained, she couldn’t buy her friend a ticket to speed up the process.

“Bernardo was quite desperate and depressed and thought he would be there forever,” Kemp said.

Private immigration detention contractors and their cost to taxpayers have drawn criticism over the years, said Virgil Weibe, an immigration expert at the University of St. Thomas.

“There is a built-in incentive in that system to detain people,” he said.

In February, Bernardo flew to Guatemala, reuniting with his family after seven years. This week, the Kemps departed for their annual trip. Seeing Bernardo will be a highlight, Kemp said.

Mila Koumpilova (612) 487-6916