Tonight 7 of us returned to the immigrant detention center. I noted that someone had cut down the sad sunflower.
After our last experience, we decided to show up later in the evening. We arrived at 7:00. Our volunteer coordinator was already there and handling things so we chatted outside until about 7:30. By the time we ventured in, there were still a few families visiting, but it was much less chaotic. There was a different guard this time; a youngish white guy who would give us a hard time, and then back off. “I’ll cut you some slack since it’s your first time here,” he’d say. Just like last time, the guard in the box didn’t seem to have any prior notice of our arrival. Again, we waited for an hour for the facility to arrange our visits.
We visited with the same men as we had before. Once our visits were approved, we all filed in to meet the first four men. I sat down to talk to M. He was wearing simple plastic frame glasses, and a goatee. He has a hopeful smile and is easy to talk to. His English is very good. I learned that M. came to the US 12 years ago when he was 19. He is a concrete worker. I asked him why he came to the US. He said that the money is just so much better in the US than in Mexico. And, he’d met a woman…a US resident. They married 11 years ago and had two children together, but he never got the paperwork completed for his residency status. “My cousins, they told me to get my paperwork done, but I just didn’t do it. I never thought I would end up in here, I thought it would be OK because we were married,” he said. He has a boy and a girl who were born in the US. They are living with his wife. He explained he had been charged with some crimes (I’m being purposely vague here, and I’ve asked him if it was OK to share his story). “I was bad,” he admitted, looking down, “But not anymore. When I get out, I will be on the straight path.” He was wearing a white plastic rosary. “I pray every morning and every night. I didn’t know God before I was here. I found God in here.” He said. “God is the only way out of this hole.” He was amazingly upbeat, and hopeful about his situation. He has a hearing coming up in October. He is worried about his kids. “In here, I can’t work, I can’t do anything! I want to get out so I can take care of my babies. What good am I to anyone in here? How is my wife supposed to take care of them by herself?” I asked if they come to visit him. He said he can talk to them on the phone sometimes (for a fee) but they live 3 hours away and it is hard for his wife to find enough money, and take time off of work. They can’t come.
“I had a lot of friends too, but when I went to jail, none of them came to visit me. No one has put even $1 in my account. You find out who your real friends are when you go to jail.”
“Sounds like you need better friends,” I said. He agreed. I made a mental note to be sure to add money to my friends commissary accounts if they are ever in jail.
During our conversation, the phones often crackled with static. We had to stop talking several times because it was so loud. A sign outside made clear that our conversation could be recorded or listened in on at any time.
“No one has been to visit me except for you guys,” he said. “I have had 3 visits.” He thanked us for coming to see him. “It’s good to talk to someone. Every day is the same in here. We watch TV, some people play cards. I like to read or draw. But I want to work. I want to take care of my babies.”
“The hardest part is, you don’t have a release date, you know?” he said. “If you do a crime, you know, OK, I have to serve so much time, and you can prepare for that in your mind. You can plan. But, this…you don’t know.” I nodded. I get it. I’m totally a planner. That would drive me nuts.
In the station next to me and M., a fluent Spanish speaking volunteer, now retired, originally from Peru, was talking to J., the 23 year old young man who started crying when I spoke to him last time. I waved to him, and he gave me a big smile. I showed him the cat drawing in my notebook and he laughed. Later, I learned from the Peruvian volunteer that he has a hearing on Monday. He does not have a lawyer. This fact does not give me a warm fuzzy feeling.
The Peruvian woman spoke with both J. and also with E., the 18 year old we met last time. In the lobby, after we were done, I asked her about her visits with these two boys. “My heart is broken,” she said. I understood. I gave her a hug.
S., the man from Nigeria, was happy to see us again too. I spoke with him for a few minutes before he had to go back. I had sent post cards to all the guys after our last visit. He told me that the guards let them know about the post cards, but wouldn’t give them the post cards because they were color photos. He thanked me anyway. “It’s the thought that counts,” he said with a weak smile. We continued chatting. I learned that he came to the US with his mom and his sister when he was 11 years old. I tried to imagine making such a journey when I was 11 and then being forever an outsider in my new home. He has tattoos on his arms, the kind you would be able to read if his fists were up, ready for a fight. They say, “Me Against the World.” Yeah. I’d imagine so.
As we walked out, I got reprimanded by the guard. He saw I had a pen. Not allowed. “I didn’t make these rules, but they are for a good reason and I have to enforce them.” I dropped my pen onto his ledge and hoped he didn’t see my notebook. He explained the rules sternly. “But, it’s your first time so… You’ll know for next time.” He grinned at me.
Just before we left, I passed this guard a simple thank you note too. “What’s this?” He read it and smiled. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I’m happy I could help.”
It was late when we left. Bright lights lit up the curls of razor wire around the building. A guard was outside taking down the flags.
We will be back.