As I finish my workday in my back yard in Tucson, Arizona, the afternoon sun is still hot as it sets over the roof of my house. I have been working from home since late March under the state’s "Stay home, stay healthy and stay connected" mandate due to COVID-19.
I’m reading letters sent to me from detained immigrants in the Eloy Detention Center, a privately owned, for-profit detention facility, located less than an hour from my home. As part of my work with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), I participate in the Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program.
I exchange letters with asylum seekers in detention as a way of offering emotional support and friendship as they begin their initial hearings. I help put together resources or their legal cases, and once or twice a month, I visit with them inside the center. However, in March all nonessential visits were canceled in response to the pandemic and I am no longer able to make these visits.
I understand that I pose a potential health risk and could unknowingly infect the overcrowded population that sometimes reaches more than 1,500, so the visitor ban does not make me angry; however, not a day goes by that it does not pain me to think of my friends there.
These are our brothers and sisters who are locked in detention with no ability to keep their distance from each other. They lack access to sanitary items, small, cheap items, such as soap and hand sanitizer, that would protect them from the spread of the virus. They have no control over the contact they have with guards who freely come and go, day after day, wearing no personal protective gear.
I am used to receiving letters that somehow almost always begin or end with a hopeful spirit. However, I am now greeted with a new sense of despair in the pleas for help from people who are detained without having committed a crime. They are even more desperate to be released for fear of contracting the coronavirus.
Many people seeking asylum in the U.S. must wait months in Mexico to enter the U.S. through an official port of entry. However, upon arrival they are sent to long-term detention facilities for months or years to await their final court hearing, which they hope will allow them to live freely in the U.S.
Some of the people at risk include an 18-year-old girl separated from her mother and twin brother after fleeing political oppression in Venezuela, and a 62-year-old Guatemalan with pre-existing lung problems who says he is now “in panic” as the numbers of cases within the detention center increase.
With a breeze lightly moving the envelopes scattered across my table, I begin to reread the letters. The first one bears a tone all too familiar: one of longing, hope and a desire for a better future; a “God-willing” sentiment mixed with pain and melancholy. It is sent by two women, one from El Salvador and the other from Cuba. I have not actually met either of the women, but my contact information is acquired in Eloy by word of mouth.
In the letter, the women humbly request an English dictionary and books to study English so they can understand the many, if not all, documents that are sent to them in this foreign language that now surrounds them. Towards the end of the letter they write “estamos muy necesitadas” which translates to “we’re in a lot of need.”
This simple comment hits me hard. How is it that they have done everything asked of them in this extremely complicated immigration process, and they still are detained with so few resources? The author of the letter, just 18 years old, has the same name as my grandmother, a name I hold dear — Alba. A name that means dawn or sunrise. (We aren’t using her last name for her security.)
The sun is now setting behind the eaves of my house, and I read the letter a third time to make sure I have not missed anything as I read in my second language. It can be daunting at times, to know that you are the sole person that someone knows in a foreign country, and in a case like this, only through mail and phone calls. But I believe if I were to meet Alba in person, I would feel as though we have known each other for a very long time because of the emotionally filled letters we exchange.
Too many mothers, daughters, fathers and sons are wasting away behind the worn, white walls of Eloy, and it leaves me feeling so very empty. As dusk surrounds me, I fold the creased letter and carefully place it back in the envelope. I am left with the image of Alba inside indefinitely, with no windows, no sun, no breeze and little hope.
I want to cry out, to raise my voice toward the injustice experienced by Alba and so many more – those who remain in detention centers across the nation as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take too many lives. It saddens me that many wouldn’t even be detained if their immigration bail bonds weren’t so outrageously high. I am angry that for-profit detention centers continue to make a profit off those who have nothing left to give, but somehow continue to be stripped of more.
Additionally, I worry about the migrants who can no longer enter the U.S., which closed its border on March 21 to all nonessential travelers to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Now asylum seekers who are fleeing their home communities in search of safety are even more vulnerable and have no hope of finding protection in the U.S.
I don’t always know the best action to take to call for change; however, I am someone who cares. So I continue to relate to detainees. I raise funds for immigration bail bonds and share detainees’ stories beyond the walls of the detention center.
Before coronavirus stopped people from traveling, I led learning tours along the U.S.-Mexico border to help open the eyes and hearts of others to the realities of our immigration system. The tours gave me hope and encouragement to continue accompanying detainees as each learning tour participant brought new passion and ideas for ways in which we can support asylum seekers.
I send action alerts written by my colleagues in the MCC U.S. Washington Office to my legislators.
I try to pray, but I’m discouraged when I stop hearing from someone and realize they probably have been returned to their home country. I know Alba is counting on me and my support; however, I cannot do this alone.
Those of us who work for migrant justice at MCC and other organizations need more people to walk with us, to walk with Alba, to advocate with me and to pray for justice. I dream of the day that this work is no longer needed. Until then, I invite you to join the effort in the ways listed below. And thank you for ways that you may be already working at this.
Katherine Smith, from Seattle, Washington, is the border/migration outreach coordinator for West Coast MCC.