Behind Razor Wire, a Voice — An Account of Visiting an Asylum Seeker in Detention

Today, I’d like to use this blog to lift up the insights of someone who’s experienced visiting migrants in detention. This account was written by Nicholas Kang, Program Fellow for LIRS’s Access to Justice unit. His post showcases not only the courage of those in detention, but also the incredible importance of the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), the Florence Project, and Casa Mariposa.

I arrived at the Florence Service Processing Center in Arizona along with 15 others — wives, children, and friends of people being held behind the walls. We were escorted by a series of different guards through a cage of chain-link and razor wire, then into a nearby concrete building. Finally, we entered a large sterile room furnished with 12 steel tables bolted to the floor, and spotted a man in a blue jumpsuit. He was nervously waiting to see who had made the 50+ mile trip from Phoenix, Tucson, or elsewhere to visit.

Because it was an impromptu visit, my friend Johannes from Catholic Charities San Antonio and I had to wait for everyone else to settle in. At that point, it was easy to identify Juan (name changed to protect his identity), the man we were scheduled to meet: He was the only one sitting alone.

During our time with Juan, an asylum-seeker, he shared his story. He mentioned how much he wished to be with his children. He shared how difficult it was to visit with his kids, and not to be able to explain the challenges he faces every day in detention. He showed us the rows of scars on his wrists and forearms from being tortured in Mexico. He talked about the struggle of seeing his children grow up while he remains locked up.

Our hour with Juan vanished before our eyes, and we were forced to go our separate ways. For Johannes and me, it was only back through the cage of chain-link and razor wire, the narrow hall, and then down the road to Tucson. For Juan, it was back to the same cell and building in which he had lived for the past seven months.

I left Florence SPC angry and frustrated with the challenges Juan is facing. Our conversation revealed the difficulties he’s dealing with in attempting to complete his asylum application. Juan speaks only Spanish, and the forms are only available in English. One would think that with over 75% of the estimated undocumented immigrant population in the United States coming from Spanish-speaking nations, our government would provide multilingual forms. As matters stand, the English forms fundamentally restrict the due processes of people who can’t access translators and/or legal counsel.

Another challenge facing Juan is staying connected to his wife and children. He enjoys speaking with them by phone, but the cost is prohibitive. He works within the facility, but being paid $1 a day for his labor doesn’t even begin to cover the outgoing calls overcharged by the facility. Furthermore, this $1 a day does little to help Juan save enough money to post bond or bail, even if given the opportunity to do so.

The reality of immigration detention seemed to run counter to our image of the country we have pride in. We live in a nation without an official national language, yet we suppress those who speak anything other than English. We live in the age of the Internet and telecommunications, yet we develop restrictions to limit communication between those in detention and those outside. We have abolished slavery, yet we allow private correctional facilities to pay detainees nickels and dimes for work within their centers. We have community-based alternatives to detention that uphold the rights of migrants, yet we elect to incarcerate them instead. It does not make sense.

At Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the goal of our unit, Access to Justice, is to promote access to the justice system, immigrant benefits, and legal protection to immigrants and refugees. There are alternatives to detention that are cheaper, more effective, and (most importantly) more humane. It’s up to all of us to ensure that the least-restrictive measures are prioritized, and that incarceration becomes a last resort when dealing with migrants and refugees.

(Holding back tears, Juan said that his youngest son’s Christmas wish was for his father to come home. This holiday season, I ask you to reflect on those who are being detained and separated from their family because they simply asked us, our nation, for a helping hand.)

I thank the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), the Florence Project, and Casa Mariposa for organizing an incredible weekend of conversation and visitation, and for all the work they do on a daily basis. Their energy, inspiration, and commitment to their work is making a difference in immigration detention, and I look forward to working with them in the near future.

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