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Detention Center Visit: Practicing Being a Sociologist

Earlier this week I went to visit the detention center*, called the corralon by the guests (many of whom have a male family member detained while the women and children were released), or called the El Paso Processing Center by the official messages we receive. The following post was what I literally wrote in my notebook while sitting in the detention center waiting room while another volunteer, Ali, met with a male detainee whose family used to be in the house. I tried to practice describing what I saw through an objective, though human-filled and personal, lens, like I hope to do as a professional sociologist in a few years. Here’s what I saw and thought:

“Room has mostly emptied out for the night, but still has a few families (two with young children) and single women waiting to visit their loved ones on the one time a week they have randomly been assigned to be allowed to actually see them- otherwise they can wait for the phone call each night that must cost a fortune- these phone calls and visitations causing those outside to be trapped as well by the schedule the impersonal institution sets, as they cannot make any plans or wander too far from the phone- never knowing when it will ring.

The building has the feel of a neglected school with dirty tile floors, generic white cement walls, and signs put up hastily with the tape still showing. This is the life of a person who doesn’t belong- they don’t leave unless they are freed or deported. They sleep, eat, work, meet loved ones and lawyers, and attend court all in the same complex. As Ali joked- “one-stop shopping.” But these people, the ones who had the audacity to try to enter “our” country at a time when we’ve decided we don’t want them, apparently deserve nothing different. President Obama is apparently proud, as his smiling photo (and that of the head of the Department of Homeland Security) is looking over us, backed of course by the American flag. This is the American reality. He can say all he wants about trying to help immigration reform, but the cold hard fact is that like this building these people are still neglected. Deportations have increased and kids are seeing their dads presented as criminals, wives separated through cement and wire from their husbands’ comforting presence. And some immigrants remain isolated and alone, as there is no one nearby to visit them.

But there is still a human presence shining through. The little girl who said she has “nueve” years old, though in reality is only three, giggles while she waits. The guards joke with Ali about the lines and the waiting. A woman who has retired from teaching sometimes finds out about people who have no one to visit them and comes just so they have someone to talk to. And really, this is what matters. You don’t beat impersonal systems like these with anything but raw human emotions. Real people must say enough, and say it strongly enough that those who are part of the system can’t help but listen.”

*For those of you who don’t know, the detention center is designed to literally be a processing center as the official name implies. It is where people who are detained at ports of entry (like the airport or the international bridges) or by Border Patrol after entering the US in a way other than through the ports of entry, are taken while immigration officials decide what to do with them. Some will be charged with the offense of entering the US without inspection (what is commonly referred to as entering illegally) and then deported. Others, such as those presenting for asylum, ideally are released either before their credible fear interview or after they have passed the credible fear interview while the await the actual long legal process of applying for asylum (though as our press conference this week showed, many of those who present for asylum are denied this right and are deported back to the very country they are trying to flee).

Because it is designed to be a short term facility they are not offered the services available at typical jails, such as GED classes. However, there are some people who end up spending more than a year at these facilities, thereby showing that they are not exclusively used as short term places. A common complaint among advocacy groups is that it seems like they try to make their existence as miserable as possible so that people will just decide to self-deport instead of trying to stick it out. In fact, the man Ali went to visit has said he would rather return to Mexico, the country he is literally fleeing for his life, then have to continue to live an indefinite amount of time in detention waiting for his asylum case.

Immigration politics sure are complicated…

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One comment on “Detention Center Visit: Practicing Being a Sociologist

  1. Lot of angles to chew on with this post…hard to cookie cutter a process when every situation may be quite unique. Processes work best when there is a standard template. I’m not sure immigration issues have a “standard”

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