The walls around immigration detention centers work both ways: They block migrant mothers and children from the land of the free, and they blind us – the free – to what goes on inside.
In July, a federal judge ruled that mothers and children should be released from family detention centers, calling the conditions “deplorable.” Now, the government is fighting that ruling, putting up their own whitewashed walls of misinformation and impossible promises.
But pro-migrant arts organization CultureStrike is shining a light inside the detention shadowlands, letting us peek into the prison walls and into the minds of detained families. They’ve teamed up with Mariposas Sin Fronteras and End Family Detention to create Visions from the Inside, which pairs letters from detained mothers and children with illustrations from artists nationwide.
In detention centers, telephone calls are prohibited or prohibitively expensive. So letter-writing provides families with a lifeline to loved ones and a way to plea for help. These illustrated missives put a human voice and a human face on the often anonymous news from behind the walls.
One of the artists, Iowa-based Fidencio Martinez, knows firsthand the experience of family detention. “I chose images of mothers holding children because I remember how it felt to be placed in ICE detention,” he says. “All I wanted was the comfort of my mother, and I think that [detained] women are incredibly brave, strong and noble in those situations. They are still fighting for the safety and well-being of their children.”
The following letter comes from Polyane Soares de Oliveira, a Brazilian woman detained with her 10-year-old daughter, Rhynasa, in the Karnes Detention Center in Texas:
“I am afraid that if I stay in this center something could happen to me or my daughter because ICE tries to cover up everything and all news that happens here. A woman got pregnant after being raped by GEO officials (a private prison corporation that partners with ICE).
There was also a Guatemalan guy who was raped, but we don’t know whether he was deported or taken to another center. I fear for my safety and my daughter’s safety…
I understand that I entered this country illegally, but I believe that I can be saved here because I am very afraid to go back to my home country.”
Jackeline, a young girl in the Karnes Detention Center, wrote:
“We need your help to get out of here soon from this place because we feel bad, this place is making us depressed. We did make friends with some other people here but yesterday they took 38 of them away. I had 5 friends and it made me feel so bad because now they’re gone…
I dream of getting out of this place… to be able to study one day… to have a better future for my life.”
Sonia Elizabeth Hernandez Amaya, from El Salvador, was detained with her children, Josselyn, 10, Valentin, 9, and Moises, 3. She writes:
“We were five days in la hielera (the so-called “ice-box” detention cells), terribly cold, sleeping on the floor of cold cement. We would cover ourselves with aluminum paper. The federales would count us every two or three hours, would get us up and the sleeping children to go outside and they would strike the door hard with their clubs and they would discriminate against us. They would say that we were dirty, that we had no reason to come here to this country.
After five days they took us out and sent us to another place that looked like a dog kennel, because they looked like cages for dogs, and there we stayed one day…
I feel frustrated, desperate, worried because, why so much time, and now immigration won’t let us out. My children don’t eat because the food is terrible, the water when we drink makes our stomachs hurt and we get bloated.”
A Guatemalan mother detained with her daughter wrote:
“I don’t have anywhere to go. I cannot return to Guatemala. I am an orphan, and my husband was murdered. I was also threatened, that I would be killed together with my daughter. I am also discriminated against because of my language, I don’t know how to speak Spanish.
Please help us. I have already been in detention for seven months. My daughter is desperate, and so am I. The water has bleach in it, and I don’t have money to buy water from the store.”
Angie Moncado, a 15-year-old from Guatemala, writes:
“Many people call it a detention center for immigrants, but we call it a jail…
There are some workers at this detention center who think poorly of immigrants. We are also human beings, just as they are, and we have feelings… Sometimes they speak very badly to us…
I have observed that when the mothers and children are lining up for lunch, they look for shade; then a supervisor from this detention center arrives and moves them out of the shade and into the sun. And there are mothers who are carrying their babies, and they have to bear the heat of the sun so they can go in and eat…
To entertain ourselves and forget what is going on around us, we young people play soccer or basketball, and what they do is take away our balls, or lock us up in our rooms.
But just as there are bad people, there are good people… They talk to you to find out how you feel, and they give good advice, and sometimes they make you feel really good. And they lift our spirits… but most of the rest are bad, they are racists, and they look down on the immigrants. What I would like them to know is that we are good people, and we have hearts and feelings.”
Read more letters and see more of the artists’ work at End Family Detention.