Daily Dispatch 2/7/2020: Land of the Captive

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InAlienableDaily Dispatch
February 7, 2020

Over the past couple of years, my husband and I sponsored two asylum-seekers in our home for a total of 6 months.  Prior to living with us, our guests had been held at two large detention facilities run by the two largest private detention corporations in the country.  We talked a bit – but never too much – about situations in immigrant detention. In these conversations, what I learned was how the point of immigrant detention seems to be isolation and the breakdown of social cohesion.

Mostly, it seemed there were a lot of arbitrary rules meant to keep people apart. 

One day, we brought home a jigsaw puzzle because they are a guilty pleasure of mine – an almost mindless thing to do that brings order in a world that often seems fragmented. Jigsaw puzzles are joint projects and yet can be worked on individually. Puzzles are good, too, it turns out, because they can distract the mind suffering from the effects of trauma. 

It turned out that our house guest – let’s call her Raquel – really enjoyed puzzles too. In fact, she completed one of our puzzles along with us, finishing it while we were at work. When we asked her about it, she told us that puzzles were permitted in detention but that they posed a special challenge. You could only work on a puzzle in a single day. When the last participant left the room, the puzzle had to be put away, so it was impossible to ever complete a 1,000 piece puzzle they had been working on, given the other constraints of their schedule. 

One day, they resolved to make a go of it. As early as they could get up, they went to the room, and they came and went in shifts, working steadily throughout the day. At the end of the day, they had made more progress than ever, but the puzzle still was not complete. On that day, the guard took mercy on them and let them leave the puzzle out, defying an arbitrary and ridiculous rule in an act of human kindness. The next day, for the first time, they were able to finish the puzzle with time to spare, an accomplishment that had previously been foreclosed to them. 

This is what community is about – being able to build something together over time through shared effort and initiative. And so it is obviously the opposite of everything that detention stands for. Detention follows the model of removing people from the body politic – stripping them of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, if not of life itself. This disarticulation of the social body is, of course, the point of detention and of nearly the entire immigration enforcement apparatus in which we find ourselves implicated today. And such disarticulation is part of a larger system that has worked to disenfranchise, imprison, and otherwise separate persons of color from the body politic since the nation’s founding.  

Last week, with the DC Detention Visitation Network, I visited a detention center, the Worcester County facility in Snow Hill, Maryland, which houses around 180 detainees under a contract with ICE. Although much of the coverage that we read about ICE detention focuses on the for-profit prison industry, which houses well more than half (estimates range from 60-73%) of the detained immigrant population, the majority of actual sites are county and local jails with much smaller populations. For what it’s worth, such facilities cost less and conditions seem better for detainees, since there is no profit motive interfering with good treatment of the human beings in the care of the county officials. 

My conversations with four men on a recent visit were pleasant enough. They didn’t have any truly damaging complaints to make about their care, although the food and the beds could be better. Their lengths of stay varied substantially, from a few months to nearly two years. As one of my interlocutors commented, the main problem is not the living conditions. His expectations with respect to shelter and food did not tend toward luxury anyway, so the facts of uncomfortable mattresses and institutional food are not major impediments to his happiness. 

Rather, he is impacted by the biggest loss for most people in detention – his personal freedom. 

This tradeoff is one that many immigrants face in our country today. They must choose between a country of origin where their lives are threatened by violence – whether political or personal, gang or structural – and one where their liberty is not a given, the United States, which fails to live up to its moniker of being a “land of the free” every time it imprisons an immigrant. 

What we can learn by visiting our neighbors in detention is the concerns and the realities of people who were our valued community members one day and were thrown behind bars the next for having the wrong paperwork. (This is why the term “undocumented” is more accurate –  because the offenses of the vast majority of migrants in detention and deportation proceedings amount to administrative infractions.) 

It is natural to ask, “How should we feel about all of this?”

A first response might be overwhelmingly sorrowful at the detention of human bodies after so much previous trauma and loss.

Beyond that, we might feel anger at those who created this system and live off the wages of sin. And perhaps, remorseful for our own complicity in that system we pay for with our taxes.

But finally, I have decided to feel hopeful that those of us who want to see the body politic enriched by the diversity of humanity can come together to heal and prevent the further dismemberment of our society caused by the capture, separation, and expulsion of some of us to the diminishment of the whole. 

Together, we need to work to become this better body politic. I maintain that this goal will be best achieved not by scattering our community members to all the corners of the earth or locking them away in separate boxes but through the creative process of bringing many distinct individuals together into a more perfect union.