“Being in detention” has a whole new meaning for me.
Since coming to El Paso, I’ve become accustomed to associating the word “detention” with undocumented immigrants. I’ve seen that the reality of what it means to “be detained” is harsh and costly. For all of us.
Recently I visited the detention facility for adult immigrants in El Paso. I had been told that detention is not a prison, but that’s not how I felt as I walked that compound. I’ll describe it to you, and you can form your own opinion.
But first, a bit of background information.
Currently, the United States has approximately 250 detention facilities for undocumented immigrants. There are separate detention centers for undocumented youth and for young children, which I have visited as well. But that’s a whole other story, complete with its own difficult statistics and heartbreaking realities.
Many of these facilities are run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but a growing number of detention facilities are now privately-run, profit-making businesses that seek to keep their beds filled. The particularly disturbing side of that fact is, unlike the federally-run facilities, these businesses have little oversight.
The cost to taxpayers to detain undocumented immigrants is about $120 per person per day and, thanks to a “bed mandate” Congress passed in 2009, our country detains at least 34,000 immigrants per day. In other words, there’s a quota—a minimum amount of beds that must be filled. At a cost of more than $2 billion a year. And that’s just for the detention centers. In fiscal year 2012 alone, the U.S. Government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement. That amount continues to rise.
Now for my visit.
Sr. Rita, the assistant chaplain at the adult detention facility here in El Paso has invited me to join her and Sr. Kathy as they offer their weekly session of Capacitar to the women inmates. Capacitar teaches practices that integrate body, mind, and spirit to help heal trauma, stress, anxiety, and other issues. Both of the sisters have been trained in Capacitar and offer it at the center to bring healing to the women. They never know which women, or how many, will show up for the sessions. But they trust that whoever comes will receive what she needs.
To enter the facility, Sr. Kathy and I first drive into a secure complex housing administrative offices of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol. The complex is surrounded by a chain link fence. Guard at the gate. IDs needed. The usual security procedures. But then we drive deeper into the complex toward a section that clearly intends to keep whatever is inside from getting out. Coiled barbed wire runs atop the high chain link fencing surrounding the area. Multiple layers of secured entryways exist between me and the other side.
We park at the main building and Sr. Kathy reminds me to leave everything in the car: my purse, notebook, water bottle. The only thing I am allowed to take inside—my driver’s license to hand over to the guard for identification. Once inside we sign in and wait for Sr. Rita, who will escort us to the barred entrance and through the layers of security.
When Sr. Rita arrives, I clip on my plastic visitor badge and follow her out to the main gate. The guard pushes a button and a long section of the fence rattles open, allowing us in. We step forward, and I hear the click of the lock as the fence rolls back in place behind us. Then we move through a narrow fenced-in passageway to another locked entrance. A female voice behind a dark-paned glass booth asks for my name and visitor badge number. The unseen woman pushes another button and the barred gate buzzes open, ushering us onto the grounds of the detention center.
Bright sunlight pounds the stark concrete. I am surrounded by cement and white buildings of various shapes and sizes. On the pavement, painted white lines run parallel from one building to another, a narrow space between them. Sr. Rita explains that the residents must stay within the lines whenever they are outside. They cannot walk outside the lines. Guards are posted to ensure the rules are followed.
The residents wear colored uniforms—cotton slacks and V-necked short-sleeved tops—based on their behavior or criminal record. Violent or dangerous criminals are assigned red. Those who’ve committed minor crimes or misdemeanors wear orange. Those whose only offense is to have crossed the border wear dark blue. Most people wear dark blue. The blues never mingle with the reds, Sr. Rita explains. And the men are always separated from the women. Even when they walk outside, one group must wait until the other passes before moving on. The men are not allowed to pass by the women. I ask why and Sr. Rita says it’s not a good idea. Some women fear the men. Being that close can cause a traumatic reaction based on the women’s past experiences. I don’t have to ask why.
The room where we will offer Capacitar has four concrete walls, one side plastered with a beautiful mural of a flowered hillside overlooking the ocean. I glance at this scene every once in awhile to change the mood I’m viewing outside the window as I wait for the women to arrive. Finally the women emerge in their dark blue pants and tops, making their way in single file, as a guard leads them along the white-lined narrow pathway to our building.
The women hesitate as they enter, waiting for direction. We hand out magic markers and we all write our first names on white adhesive tags and stick them onto our shirts. Glad to use the little Spanish I know, I introduce myself to each of the women and say their names aloud. This feels sacred to me, the speaking of each woman’s name, acknowledging the individual underneath the blue uniform. We take our seats and I look around at these women—some young, some middle aged—and wonder what they have endured to get here. Two of the women can’t be more than early 20’s, their faces full of that youthful exuberance, which shines even here in this place of concrete and barbed wire. I think of the statistics I’ve learned about the high percentage of women who are raped along the way. And I wonder.
With music playing from an iPod, we teach the women Tai Chi and acupressure points to relieve stress and anxiety. We move together in a circle, our bodies free and flowing. The two young women smile at each other and giggle. I notice a visible change in the energy in the room. For nearly two hours, we instruct them in self-care before they will return to their barracks with whatever memories they carry within their minds, bodies, and hearts.
After the session is over, I use the little Spanish I can muster to speak to one of the young women. As soon as I say I’m from Virginia, a huge smile spreads across her face. “My mother and brother are in Alexandria,” she says in broken English. I tell her I lived in Alexandria for many years. Suddenly, like a child delighted with herself, she speaks another English word. “Boyfriend.” Her boyfriend, too, is in Alexandria. I ask her in Spanish how long she’s been in this center. Three months, she answers. On March 10 she will be sent back to El Salvador. I cannot imagine she will stay there very long.
As I say goodbye to each of the women, I pray silently for their journeys. I will not see them again. I want to offer them something.
Before we leave, Sr. Rita shows us around the rest of the “campus.” She tells me that this is one of the better run detention facilities. She points out the large, long barracks with their tall multi-paned windows that let in light. Inside, guards are on duty 24/7. We are not allowed to enter. We tour the medical building with its isolation room for those who come with suspected contagious diseases, the library where the detainees come to research information for their cases (even though many of them cannot read or write), and the building where new detainees are processed. On the way out of this building, I notice a flyer that reads: “Feeling sad, lonely, depressed, anxious? Don’t give up. There is help.” I can’t catch the rest of the words before we have to move on. But I wonder what feelings I would have locked up in such a place, a long way from home and family, my future in someone else’s hands. And I wonder why the flyer is in English.
As we leave the building, a van pulls up. They’re bringing in new captives—people who have just been caught at the border. The back doors open and a guard steps out leading a man bound with chains around his ankles.
“I’ll never get used to that,” Sr. Rita tells me as I watch the guard unchain him.
As we return to the main desk to pick up my driver’s license and sign out, I think about how fortunate I am to be “legal,” to have all the necessary identification needed to live in this country without fear of being removed from my home or family. Why am I so fortunate to have been born here and not in some poverty-stricken country? I feel the weight of this responsibility. Because it is a tremendous responsibility—to have been given so much when so many are in need. And in such need that they will risk anything to leave their situation behind. Familiar words of Jesus pop into my head: “To the one who has been given, much will be expected.”