A Glimpse Inside Immigrant Detention on the Southwest Border

We have all read the news stories about people in “migrant caravans” walking hundreds of miles from the Northern Triangle of Central America to the U.S. southern border. Who are the people in these “caravans,” and why are they coming to the U.S.?

Like refugees before them, these men, women, and children are fleeing unspeakable violence and persecution that their own countries have struggled to control. They arrive at our border and ask for protection (“asylum”), which they have a legal right to do, and our country has an international obligation to recognize this right.

Instead, the Trump administration has taken to fear-mongering, restricting asylum, and finding other ways to shut migrants out, whether by building physical walls or a virtual “wall” of more border agents, fewer pathways to legal immigration, more deportations, and more prisons to detain migrants.

We are putting immigrants in prisons while they go through the asylum process. We are treating refugees like criminals, like threats to society. That includes entire families and children.

As the latest death of a child and the horrific conditions and overcrowding in immigrant jail makes clear, the prison approach is harmful, punitive, unnecessary, and failing.

In April, I visited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in El Paso, Texas along with other representatives from Reformed churches across the globe. With this delegation, I had the opportunity to see directly how our nation is “housing” immigrants and asylum-seekers.

These jails are anything but the “safe haven” asylum-seekers hope for when they flee their homes and try to start a new life in the U.S. This was made all the more real to me as I walked through a facility myself.

I will never forget the instructions of the facility’s chaplain, who took us on the tour. “Do not talk to the ‘residents,’” he said, “it could impact their immigration cases.”

He led us into the women’s living quarters, where dozens of women had been ordered to sit on their bunks while we toured the facility. As we walked into their space, they covered themselves with their blankets to save a shred of their own dignity.

In another room, women were shackled at their ankles, waists, and wrists, waiting to be loaded onto deportation buses. Their faces were variously terrified, defeated, and empty. It grieved me to not be able to interact with them, while the chaplain talked cheerfully about the board games and activities available to them.

While being toured through the small library, I made eye contact with a gentleman seated at a computer, who shook his head at me as the chaplain talked about compassion. When our eyes met again, he mouthed the word, “help,” to me. All I could do was hold my hands to my heart and nod, thinking, “I see you. I hear you. I will not leave this place and do nothing, I promise.”

In the cafeteria, one man began speaking to us even though he was not supposed to. “They’re lying to you,” he said. “I’m not a criminal and I’ve been waiting in here for my court date for five months. Please do something!” Though he had not gotten physical with our group, the staff promptly and aggressively restrained him while we were quickly escorted out of the cafeteria.

Detention is not the answer, but our government chooses it intentionally. In the name of “deterrence,” it seems that the goal is to break the spirits of already traumatized people to the point that they will abandon their cases and go back to the violence they fled. When we label and treat asylum-seekers as criminals, we fool ourselves into believing that we are justified in treating them as less than human.

Shame on us.

When the man in the cafeteria spoke out, a staff member looked witheringly at him and shook his head. “Sorry about that,” he said to me. “They think you can do something about their cases.”

“Actually, I can,” I responded. “I can advocate and I can vote.”

Melissa Stek is a Justice Mobilization Specialist at the Office of Social Justice for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Grand Rapids, MI.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America also has an immigration story, although we recognize that descendants of enslaved Africans and Native Americans do not share this history. The CRCNA was established by Dutch Reformed immigrants but has since grown to include many ethnicities and nationalities. Learn more here.

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If I don’t write I can’t call myself a writer. I care about racial and gender justice, mental health, and faith. Stick around for what I have to say about it.

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