Today was our last day on the border. Thus far, we’ve travelled from Tucson to Agua Prieta and Nogales. We’ve visited border patrol, spoken to humanitarian aid groups and much more. The last stop was Florence Correctional Center, a detention center for undocumented immigrants from many different parts of the world. A part of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Florence is a government owned and operated immigration detention facility.
WHAT WE HEARD:
The day began with an orientation from Carolina, once a detainee herself, who was a representative of Mariposas Sin Fronteras. Mariposas provides solidarity to LGBTQ people in detention through visits, letters, bond fundraising, case support, advocacy and post-detention hospitality. Today, we were accompanying Mariposas to speak with detainees at the Florence Center. As Carolina explained, many of the detainees had no contact from the outside world. One detainee, José from Guatemala*, had spent nearly nine years in various detention facilities.
The important thing to remember about the detainees — they are not prisoners. None of the detainees have had criminal charges brought upon them other than immigration, or have been convicted of other “crimes.” However, the conditions within the detention center would say otherwise — as one detainee described it: “this is my first time in jail”. The visitations themselves were hard to arrange. We could only visit in small groups, meaning our group of 12 was split up. We waited over an hour to get into the facility, and each group waited 2-3 hours for the other to finish their meetings.
All of the detainees that we met with, like Jose, are seeking asylum. After serving as a congressman in his home country, Jose had to flee from political persecution. He’s been waiting nine years for approval. Jose’s story was not unique, although 9 years is not a normal amount of time to be in detention for. Rather, many detainees are in detention for very short periods of time, sometimes a few days or weeks, and thus the environment we heard of was one of transience, of a lack of trust and friendship between detainees, resulting in a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Additionally, we heard stories of broken promises, as detainees got out and ended contact with the people they had met inside. But Jose’s reasons for seeking asylum lined up well with their detainees we spoke to, who were fleeing from gang-based violence or from persecution because of homesexuality. But Carolina reminded us not to harp on the legal burdens plaguing the detainees. Sometimes the detainees just needed a friendly face and some small-talk to get them through the monotony.
Many of the detainees spoke Spanish (one spoke French!). So in each of our groups, we had at least one interpreter. For the most part, we tried to avoid sensitive topics, or to only go as far as the detainees seemed comfortable. Some wanted to tell us about how they were apprehended, others looked down into their laps when we asked them to recall their lives before detention. We talked about books, the weather, sports, religion, television, dancing and other mutual interests. After discovering their detainee’s love of music, one group even sang together. Just try to imagine the guards reaction to a hushed rendition of “Jar of Hearts” by Christina Perri.
WHAT WE SAW:
Sitting outside of Borderlinks in the hot Tucson morning, Carolina laid out various detainee files on the table in front of us. They were full of personal information, both written by the detainees themselves and by other visitors that had volunteered through Mariposas Sin Fronteras. In logs filled out by volunteers there was special attention paid to the detainee’s perceived mental states, court dates, status of their asylum applications, or their desires for visits and letters of support. The detainees had filled out forms that asking them about their stories, their sexuality, and their hopes for their lives in America if they were granted asylum. Some of the detainees had been visited every day this week, however this probably has to do with the fact that many schools have break this week, and thus there were a lot of people volunteering with Mariposas Sin Fronteras during this particular week. By coming into contact with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, these detainees now have an organization that is keeping track of them, and as we have seen throughout the past week, it is very easy to lose track of a detainee within a system that doesn’t seem to pay much attention to who they are or care for their basic human rights.
Each group took a file and loaded into the van, beginning the journey to the Florence detention center. Also in Florence were various other detention facilities and prisons, and Michael, our instructor for the day who worked for No More Deaths, told us that the city of Florence existed solely due to the detention centers. As we drove we pored over the files, trying to take in as much information since we wouldn’t be able to bring the files into the visitations with us. There was ample time for this though, as the detention center was an hour and a half from Tucson. This made us wonder how likely it would be for a detainee’s family to visit them in Florence when not only did one have to account for the drive, but they also had to consider the anywhere from one to four hour wait to see their loved ones. And this assumed the mobility of the people trying to visit — what if they didn’t even have a car?
Perhaps the most jarring thing about the Florence Correctional Center was its resemblance to an actual prison, or rather the prisons we had seen in TV or the movies. At every door, we had to be buzzed in by guards, going through a metal detector and then walking along narrow paths next to fences with barbed wire. The dress code was strict as well: closed-toed shoes, long pants, nothing suggestive or tight or revealing, and hair down. We were also not able to bring anything in with us, and thus we left our phones and bags and water bottles in the van.
Inside the visitation room, there were no windows and no natural light, only fluorescents. We signed in again and then turned around to see a stark, sterile room filled with small tables, 2 chairs on each side. Detainees sat at the tables in crocs or slip-ons and various colored uniforms and, which we never quite figured out the reason for — detainees had different ideas as to what the various colors meant, but there was a general confusion from the detainees on what it all meant.
As instructed by Carolina, we were not allowed to sit directly next to the detainee, and thus had to pull up a chair to the side adjacent to them for our meetings. This again reinforced the idea that they were dangerous criminals in prison, rather than apprehended undocumented immigrants.
On top of their stories, they also brought us things. One man showed a group of us documents he had saved that chronicled important milestones throughout his life — his certificate of graduation from his university, his high school report card, and other important documents that revealed the successes of his life prior to his detention.
What we didn’t see today was the time racing by on the clock behind us as we talked and shared with these various detainees. At one point we got a call alerting us that it had been nearly 3 hours and the van was waiting, and we were all surprised at how much time had passed. And as we paid our goodbyes and good lucks and exited the visitation room, we were acutely aware of the fact that although we could easily leave, all the people behind us couldn’t, and some of them didn’t have any idea if they ever would walk freely into America.
WHAT WE FELT:
The sad truth is that Florence has one of the highest deportation rates of immigration centers in the country. Nearly 90% of detainees are deported. It was hard for us to align this realization with the hope and faith of the detainees we met with, but in many ways their attitudes were admirable and inspiring. In some ways we felt hopeless, but unlike our reactions to Operation Streamline, the detainees we met at the Florence Detention Center seemed optimistic in that they still had a chance at asylum, and this optimism was palpable.
At certain points within our meetings, we felt uncomfortable. One of us described it as feeling like she wanted to leave, yet having the strange sensation that if the person across the table from her wanted the same, they would not have the right to do so. Perhaps we felt uncomfortable when there were pauses in our conversations, however we also have to remember that these detainees wanted this contact and this connection, stuck within a transient environment in which they lack connection.
Thus, we learned it is as important to just talk with them, connect with them, let them speak with you, or laugh with them as it is to get details like their court dates, perhaps even more important. For Mariposas, it is important to get these details so they can keep track of the people they are helping, but for detainees, they need these meetings and letters of support to get through the monotony of their sentences, and we felt happy that we had these kinds of interactions with them.
After we left, we were instructed by to write letters, both to the detainees as well as a letter for their file that speaks of their character. Michael told us that these letters attempt to prove to a judge that these detainees are not dangerous or a risk, and this was angering, because it showed that these human beings were looked at as less than human until proven otherwise to the judge. How is this just or fair?
We leave today, and this trip, with many questions, and just a few are articulated below:
All four detainees we met with are at different points in their attempts to gain asylum from their home countries, and the question on all of our minds was will they be able to get it? Is it at all possible?
Why do we let these detention centers resemble prisons? Why do we treat our detainees as we would prisoners and criminals? How can we rationalize this?
But we also leave today with hope, as these four men and their strength and bravery inspire us and make us hope for their potential futures in the United States. As Cy told us at some point during the week, she has seen people flight harder and give up less when they have faith or a religion to believe. It seems as though some of these detainees have developed faith as a consequence of being in detention, and as we heard from one man “if you don’t have faith you have nothing”. We leave today with the hope that this faith carries these detainees as they seek asylum and their dreams in the United States.
*specific names and home countries of detainees have been changed for privacy