Behind the façade of immigrant family detention

Rachel Smith | September 14, 2015

Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo

Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo

On a humid Saturday morning in Washington, D.C., I sat on the steps of a Columbia Heights church with twenty other immigrants’ rights advocates. Speaking a mix of English and Spanish, we practiced songs and chants as we loaded into cars headed towards Berks Family Detention Center. Earlier that week, and similar to most of my time at CWS, I had researched immigration legislation, made visits to Capitol Hill for Congressional hearings and briefings, and analyzed proposed reforms to the family detention system. Despite my work to prepare and knowledge of the system, I had no idea what I would actually see later that day as I witnessed the realities of family detention first-hand.

Four hours later, our caravan pulled up on a rural country road in Leesport, Pennsylvania, surrounded by over 100 other activists and their families from Philadelphia and the surrounding communities. Restricted from the detention center property itself, we gathered on a grassy area across from the parking lot. We stared at the place that many of us had talked about so many times in our advocacy work and what so many politicians lauded as a solution to an outdated and immoral immigration system. What most people first commented on was how unsettling it wasn’t. It looked like a brick elementary school, with a soccer field where children were playing. It didn’t seem like a prison – there were no fences around the kids’ field, just cones marking their play area. It was nothing that lived up to my previous ideas of prison. It was down the road from a quiet public library where daily life in the community went on around this center.

I, like others in our group who organize and analyze policy every day, expected to be disgusted and shocked upon arrival. I was confused when I wasn’t. The center looked livable, the children didn’t look mistreated, and we didn’t notice inhumane conditions that were infamous of the Dilley and Karnes centers. Sister Kathleen of the Sisters of Mercy accurately described this as a “façade.” The prettiness of the facilities is intentional. To an outsider, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong – that is exactly what the people in charge of these facilities want. The school-like facilities, their names cleverly worded as “family residential centers,” the playgrounds, and libraries – they are all intended to conceal the fact that the United States imprisons innocent women and children, and to suppress public outrage at that fact.

Yet, behind all the pretty facilities, there is one simple circumstance that transcends the rest: they cannot leave. Women and children who have fled violence, and have not committed any crimes, are stuck within the confines of a few acres of land. They are indefinitely trapped.

This notion, although already obvious, became the most blatant and glaring message of the day. The kids ended their soccer game and began chanting “¡Justicia! ¡Justicia! ¡Libertad!” and sang with us, swinging their jerseys in the air. Ana and her daughter, former Berks detainees, spoke to the crowd about being imprisoned. One of the few attorneys serving families at Berks told us about the pain she saw on the inside, and someone read a letter aloud from a woman on the other side of those brick walls. We were reminded of the saying, “A golden cage is still a cage.”

As the evening approached and our singing and chanting quieted, we packed our things to head back into the city. We would go back to our comfortable homes and families who were free to move and do as they please. We would drive to the store, to church, to work, to school, to visit our friends. As we drove away, we looked back at the children who didn’t have that freedom. Though we were able to go back to our lives of freedom, they would be there, in the same place, with freedom just on the other side of the fence but entirely out of their grasp.

I kept that experience with me for the rest of my summer interning with the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program. At Berks, I saw the faces and heard the voices that made up the numbers and statistics that were plainly and unemotionally stated so many times in Congressional hearing rooms. The children in the facility were part of the reason we fasted at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters and rallied for immigration reform and prosecutorial discretion to be implemented in cases like theirs around the country just weeks before.

During my three months at the CWS office in Washington, D.C., I spent dozens of hours on Capitol Hill listening to anti-immigrant rhetoric, but also surrounded by passionate activists and immigrant allies. After just a few rallies and meetings, I recognized many of their faces. In a time where political dialogue is often filled with hatred towards immigrants, it became a symbol of hope for me to see the same people showing up to every event, committed to pursuing justice and liberation for the children and families.

It was a long summer to be an immigrants’ rights advocates and we are unsure of what is to come, but at the end of each day, the diverse and close-knit immigrants’ rights community in D.C. and beyond is there to resist the demonizing generalizations about our immigrant brothers and sisters as we strive to create a more welcoming system and country.

Rachel Smith, Summer 2015 CWS Immigration and Refugee Program Intern