Immigration Detention 1/2/16: “worse than prison”

I left the bar where I’d been watching the Liberty Bowl before the game was over and drove to pick up my friend from church and head back to the detention center.

On the drive, my friend A. and I chatted about life and love and church gossip. He’s a great guy and I’m looking forward to hanging out with him again and getting to know him better.

When we arrived, I was surprised to see very few cars in the lot and absolutely no one in the waiting area. We walked in. We were the only ones there. 

I was happy to see the friendly guard at his post when we walked up. I’d written down the names of the people we were assigned to visit and I passed them through the slot. A. peered inside the guard’s box. “Woah. Seriously outdated technology there,” he remarked.

3 more volunteers came to join us. Just then I noticed a sign: “No visits (except legal) or programs on 1/2/16”

Huh. That explained why there were no families there. I wondered why we weren’t being turned away. I decided to leave well enough alone.

We submitted all the names and waited. The guard recognized me. He was polite and professional and kind as usual.

While we waited for our visits to be arranged, a family walked in. They didn’t know visits were cancelled for the day and they were quickly turned away. I felt sad as they walked out. Who knows how much effort it took for them to come tonight?

Then, our visits began. 

Of the people I’d met with before, only S. was still on my list. I hoped all the other guys were well.

I started talking to S. again. I asked him about his new year and holidays. He said they fed them some turkey but nothing special. He said there is no update. They want to deport him but they can’t get his travel paperwork straight. We talked sports and general chit chat. He seemed in better spirits.

Then they brought 3 Spanish speaking ladies. I handed S. off to another volunteer and went to chat with two of the ladies with another volunteer.

The ladies were all in the same plain navy jumpsuits that the guys had on. They each had the same plastic wristbands. 

V.  is 33 years old- younger than me, but she looks 53. Her face is weather-worn and worry-wrinkled. She’s from Guatemala. Her front teeth are worn down and she has crowns but her smile is still sweet. I started speaking Spanish with her when she helpfully offered that she knew English. She has 2 kids, U.S. born – a boy and a girl- 7 and 11. One is living with her sister in another state pretty far away and one is in Guatemala with family. Her sister already has 3 kids. V. explained she was trying to cross from Guatemala to Texas and got picked up there. They flew her across the country to this facility. She has no family anywhere near this facility. She said she was worried about her babies. She was fighting back tears telling me about them. She has been locked in this facility for 6 months. Her court date isn’t for another 2 months. I asked about the dad. She shrugged, looking down. “He found another one,” she said with a weak smile, as if to say, “that’s what they do.” My heart broke. She is a single mom. So very far from home. I wished I could hug her- and her sister!

I promised to pray for her and to send her a letter. She thanked me. She said she was so surprised to have a visitor.

Next I spoke to D. D. didn’t speak any English at all so we made do with my Spanish. She’s only 20 and has one child. She is pretty and sweet and from El Salvador. She’s been in detention for about 4 months. I did most of the talking. She seemed just happy/ amused to listen to me trying to talk to her. I told her people cared about her and I would pray for her and I would send her a letter too. 20! I can’t imagine.

My friend A. had a good visit with K. from Africa. A. was wearing a cross necklace and at first K. didn’t want to say that he was a Muslim. Happily, A. is pretty well traveled, open-minded and kind, and he soon set K’s mind at ease and they were quickly chatting about politics. K. is another person who was brought to the U.S. as a child and has grown up undocumented. He’s been to prison and reported that prison was actually better than detention because, he explained, in prison there are at least activities. Here, he told A., there’s nothing to do but watch TV.

As we wrapped up, we realized that we’d missed a woman on our list! I explained to the guard. He looked at the clock. 20 minutes to 9:00. He made a face. “By the time we get her down here, you won’t have any time left.”  

I made a sad face. “But even a little hello is better than nothing,” I said hopefully. He gave me a sideways glance and took the name. Pretty soon, our volunteer was chatting with a Jamacian lady. She’d left Jamacia for safety reasons but now she was about to be deported.

I was waiting in the lobby with A. watching the clock. It was now 10 after 9:00. “Sir, do you need us to wrap up? It’s after 9:00.” He looked thoughtfully over at the elderly white lady deeply engaged with the young black Jamacian woman wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit. They were the only ones in the room. He looked back at me and shrugged, conveying that, well, they are here now, a little more time wasn’t going to hurt anything or matter to him. 

I sat back down and wrote that angel of a guard another thank you note.  This time he slid one back as he returned my ID. “Thanks. You are such a Taurean!” It said. I smiled. How did he know I was a Taurus?? A. solved it quickly. “He looked at your ID! Nigerians are so funny like that,” A. said.

The guard smiled at me as we walked out, put his hands together and nodded.

On the way home, A. and I stopped for margaritas and food to debrief and relax. 

A. said, “You know, the more you talk to people- it doesn’t matter what country they are from or religion or any of that- we are all so much the same. We all have the same fears, the same desires, the same emotions.” 

We thoughtfully sipped our margaritas.

We will be back.

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