INGLEWOOD — From outside, the Mardi Gras Hotel looks like another of the rent-by-the-hour hotels that dot Century Boulevard near the Hollywood Park race track.
But the hotel's festive name belies the plight of the people behind its barred windows and security doors.
The hotel is actually a detention center for illegal aliens awaiting immigration hearings or travel documents before being returned to their home countries. With the planned closing of a similar facility in Hollywood on Friday, the Mardi Gras Hotel will be the only detention center in Los Angeles County run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
This week, a dozen women chained themselves to the detention center to protest the facility's "deceptive" facade, and to call for an end to what they say is immigration service policy of deporting illegal aliens who fled from Central America to escape wars there.
In doing so, they called attention to a facility that few of its neighbors were aware of.
"People who drive by this place probably think it's a place where people go to have a good time," said protester Margaret Arnold. "People who live around here or people who drive down the street are unaware that this hotel is really a jail for immigrants and refugees."
Indeed, several neighbors and nearby store owners who gathered to watch the protest Monday said they did not know the Mardi Gras had been an INS facility since 1982.
"I never could figure out why people had to buzz this little button to get into the place," said Victor Gonzales, who lives a few doors from the hotel. "I had no idea that people were locked up inside that place."
Though none of the protesters had ever been inside the Mardi Gras or any other INS detention center, and they had no specific allegations, they said they had reports that the people inside were treated poorly. That charge was disputed by officials of the INS and Eclectic Communications Inc., which runs the center on a contract with the agency.
"This facility is nicer than half the hotels up and down this street," said a worker at the facility who declined to identify himself. "The people live in rooms with color television sets and air conditioning. The food is good. We provide medical treatment. This place is heaven compared to a jail."
He said the Ventura-based company provides counseling and housing services for government agencies. The Mardi Gras, which holds about 100 people, mostly women and children, is its only INS facility. Most adult males picked up by the INS are held at a facility in Florence, Ariz., an INS official said.
Reporters were not allowed inside, but the operators said tours could be arranged later. INS officials said they inspect the facility regularly and city officials said it has the proper licenses and permits.
'Women of Conscience'
The protesters, who called themselves the Women of Conscience, carried a banner that said, "Stop Human Rights Abuses of Immigrants and Refugees," and hung stuffed mannequins around the building that they said represented refugees locked inside. They said they came from various parts of Los Angeles and none lived in Inglewood or elsewhere in the South Bay.
"A lot of the people locked inside this place are Central American refugees that might be killed or tortured if they are sent back to places like Guatemala and El Salvador," Arnold said. INS officials declined to comment on what happens to immigrants sent back to Central America.
Immigration officials estimated that about half of the people housed at the Inglewood detention center are from Central America. Most of them are sent back after hearings before an immigration judge, said Don Looney, an official at the INS Western Regional Office's detention and deportation division in Los Angeles.
About 3% of the Central American immigrants are granted political asylum and another 20% or so are allowed to stay for other reasons, he said.
More Should Get Asylum
"We think the INS should grant asylum to more Central Americans since they come here to escape death and destruction in their own countries. We plan to stay here until we leave with the Central American refugees locked inside this place, even if it means being arrested," said Arnold.
Inglewood police, however, decided not to arrest the protesters after conferring with the detention center management. Asked why no arrests were going to be made for the acknowledged trespassing, Inglewood Police Sgt. Norman Brewer told about 20 news people gathered outside: "These ladies didn't come here to use me, they came here to use you and it looks like they have already done that."
The women ended their protest about 3:30 p.m. but vowed to return next week.