A migrant child looking through the US-Mexico border fence, Tijuana

John Moore/Getty Images

A migrant child looking through the US-Mexico border fence, Tijuana, November 2018

At the beginning of August, as coronavirus cases continued to spike across the country, I interviewed a Mexican asylum seeker as part of a project to archive the voices of migrants who have suffered under the US detention system. The man, who asked to be referred to as Enrique to safeguard his identity, had just been released after eight months inside the La Palma Correctional Center, a private for-profit detention center in Arizona under contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where he endured verbal abuse from racist guards, was given insufficient and often spoiled food, and eventually became infected, along with countless others, with Covid-19. When Enrique first began to exhibit symptoms, he pleaded with guards and in-house medical staff to be tested, only to be denied and dismissed for weeks.

More than a month later his condition deteriorated so severely that medical staff were forced to transfer him to a nearby hospital. It was there that Enrique finally received confirmation that he had been suffering from the coronavirus all along. The nurses, after completing a scan of his chest, also informed him that they had spotted several cancerous growths in his lungs, tumors that would soon offer him a grim ticket to freedom, finally providing irrefutable grounds for the medical parole that had previously been denied to him.

“I arrived at the border, at the front door of this country,” Enrique told me. “I knocked on the door. I said to an officer, ‘I’m here to ask for asylum. Will you help me?’” Instead of receiving protection, Enrique found himself driven to the edge of death. As shocking as his story is, the current brutality of American immigration enforcement is perhaps best encapsulated by something Enrique witnessed while in detention before the outbreak of the virus: one day, while in the yard with his fellow detainees, Enrique watched a man climb to the top of the fence surrounding the facility and hang himself with the barbed coils of concertina wire. When guards arrived, they beat the man’s bloodied body, sprayed him with pepper spray, and took him away.

Enrique and the others never found out what became of the man, but his act was part of an emerging pattern—reports continue to leak out from La Palma of men hanging themselves, slitting their wrists, swallowing razor blades. For months on end, detainees have organized hunger strikes, sent out letters en masse, and engaged in countless acts of desperation and resistance, all with the hope of drawing attention to a system that has for decades been rooted in dehumanization and the deadly fiction of deterrence.

A handful of new books examine America’s punitive immigration politics from different angles, each offering its own wrenching portrait of the Trump era. The books also touch on the greatest outrage of his administration: the policy-sanctioned separation of families that began in the summer of 2018. Despite the months of backpedaling and equivocation that followed the rollout of the policy, a recent investigation has revealed the extent to which it was carefully directed, with then attorney general Jeff Sessions bluntly announcing to a group of prosecutors, “We need to take away children.” Public awareness of the separations still centers around images of children wailing at the feet of armed agents and kids sleeping in chain-link cages at the border, but in Migrating to Prison César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández shows that the machinery of separation has long stretched deep into the interior, consisting of a vast network of immigrant detention centers that now reach almost every state in the nation.

The internment of migrants is often relegated to a political no-man’s-land, slipping through the cracks that separate discussions of immigration and criminal justice. But in Migrating to Prison we learn that, at the federal level, more people are imprisoned in the United States for immigration violations than for any other charges. While the US has long been notorious for having the largest prison population in the world, it also possesses the world’s largest immigrant detention system, locking away more than half a million people annually. Incarceration has escalated at staggering rates, with Obama’s previous record of detaining more than 34,000 migrants on any given day quickly surpassed by Trump, whose average by 2018 had already grown to more than 42,000. Increasingly, people like Enrique who come to our front door seeking safe passage into a “nation of immigrants” are being ushered, instead, into prison.

In tracing the history behind today’s record levels of imprisonment, García Hernández reveals the haphazard ways immigration enforcement has been devised and administered, how supremacist notions of nationalism and race have long guided our policymaking, and how adherence to procedural guidelines was gradually reframed as a question of criminality.

Advertisement

For García Hernández, a professor of law at the University of Denver and a practicing immigration lawyer, the issue is personal. The grandson of migrant farmworkers who came to the US under the Bracero Program for guest workers in the 1950s, he was raised in the Rio Grande Valley—long a proving ground for America’s most relentless border enforcement practices. Despite growing up in a region of perceived lawlessness, it wasn’t until he arrived at Brown University as an undergraduate that he became truly acquainted with criminal behavior: “During my first week in the Ivy League, I saw more crime than I ever had before. Marijuana came out from behind classics of English literature, and fake IDs were as common as late-night pizza.” García Hernández soon learned that campus cops had little interest in saddling students with charges of identity theft or federal drug crimes. He quickly understood that America’s elite colleges, as spaces dominated by wealthy white people, would always be free from the stigma of criminality that hung over the overwhelmingly poor, overwhelmingly brown corner of South Texas he called home.

America’s immigration politics have long been defined by exclusion, but García Hernández reminds us that “for most of the nation’s history, we did not lock up so many people for the act of migration.” This all began to change in the aftermath of the war on drugs, launched in the 1970s, which effectively thwarted many of the rights won during the civil rights movement by reorienting racist anxieties around notions of crime, ushering in what Michelle Alexander later called “the new Jim Crow” of mass incarceration. “Much like inner-city black men,” García Hernández writes, “migrants were depicted as depraved purveyors of death and moral decay, especially those from south of the border.”

Imprisoning migrants in greater numbers soon became a way not only to treat newcomers as outcasts but to mark them in the public imagination as a threat to traditional notions of American life. Semantically, however, government institutions worked hard to ensure that the word “prison” was never attached to the growing network of “detention,” “processing,” and “residential” centers. Even today, courts and judges continue to assert that, in legal terms, these aren’t places for punishment but administrative waiting rooms that provide the government with time to decide “where on the map people should stand.”

In The Dispossessed the immigration reporter, translator, and activist John Washington explores how these same enforcement policies and legal maneuvers made possible a gutting of asylum and refugee protections. Washington reaches all the way to the beginning of Western history to trace how the concept of asylum evolved across millennia, drawing on the work of philosophers, poets, politicians, and other thinkers to illuminate how notions of refuge have been part of the very foundation of organized human society. Providing places of sanctuary was deemed so important by the ancients that, as Moses organized the kingdom of Israel, he was commanded by God to establish six “cities of refuge” where those fleeing blood vengeance could find safety. These Levitical cities extended protection far outside their walls, ensuring that the roads leading to them offered safe and convenient travel, with signs proclaiming “Refuge, Refuge” and promising legal representation for every fleeing asylum seeker. “It’s hard to imagine a more antipodal stance from today’s refugee policy,” Washington observes.

The word asylum stems from the ancient Greek term a-sylan, denoting a place free from pillaging and piracy. During the Hellenistic period, these sanctuaries from marauding and persecution were respected with fearsome regard—to violate their established protections was to invite scourge and plague. Defining the boundaries of these spaces also laid the groundwork for what were, in effect, some of the first political borders, helping to establish early notions of the nation-state and the types of control it might exercise over certain areas. “This is one of the inherent paradoxes of asylum and refugee principles,” Washington notes: “that the delimiting of protection from a state reinscribed the need for a state, even if it was a different one, to offer that very protection.” But today, he points out, it is the state itself that has evolved into “the ultimate pirate” against whom most refugees end up seeking protection.

In addition to its broad historical view, The Dispossessed offers what is perhaps the most complete narrative account of modern-day asylum and the politics of refusal that have come to define the current era. Understanding these dynamics is vital: since the number of immigrants and refugees admitted to the US is capped by shrinking country-based quotas, the number of asylum cases, which are governed in part by international agreements and not subject to numerical limits, have exploded. Asylum seekers, once a small subset of prospective immigrants, are now situated at the very center of enforcement and policy, with anti-asylum measures like the “Remain in Mexico” regulations—officially known under the Orwellian moniker “Migrant Protection Protocols”—requiring them to wait for their asylum hearings on the Mexican side of the border, leaving them vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and perpetual overcrowding.

Advertisement

The situation at our border is often described as a crisis, but The Dispossessed lays out its gradual design, suggesting that Trump’s unraveling of protections is not an initiative unique to his presidency so much as a culmination of a thirty-year worldwide trend to “stymie, deter, and deny asylum seekers.” Under Trump, of course, there is something especially horrifying about the loud and proud repudiation of international protocols and the wholehearted embrace of what was previously a more quiet, if no less concerted, effort to stave off the huddled masses. But the impulse to reject foreigners has always been buried just under America’s supposedly welcoming surface and was evident even at the dawn of the post–World War II international order.*

In 1951 the United Nations defined refugee rights and outlined international standards for protection by issuing its landmark Refugee Convention. The US, however, despite being a central participant in negotiating its terms, declined to sign on to the agreement for seventeen years, bowing to nativist political pressure. Our country finally became party to the accord after it was revised in 1967 to lift geographic and temporal restrictions on refugees, so that the US could, in part, save face during the Vietnam War.

It was not until 1980, with the passage of the US Refugee Act, that the legal definitions and protections laid out in the Convention were finally codified explicitly in US law. Nevertheless, in the following years the United States aggressively resisted the arrival of fleeing Haitians, Central Americans, and others, meeting their asylum claims with disdain, denial, and worse. Washington reminds us:

Asylum seekers, then and now, are not merely politely denied and gamely deported—they are detained, punished, humiliated, and shackled in an elaborate show of force meant to deter other potential asylum seekers from staking their own claim.

The historical analysis of The Dispossessed is grounded by the intimately reported story of an asylum-seeker named Arnovis, a father from El Salvador who ultimately makes three failed attempts to enter the US, the final one resulting in a month-long separation from his six-year-old daughter, Meybelín, who was held in the US after his deportation in June 2018. Arnovis’s vulnerability, resolve, and ceaseless fear are all made heartrendingly palpable: “My only dream,” he tells Washington, “is to wake up and be able to smile at my daughter.” As Washington retraces Arnovis’s steps, visiting sites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, he includes brief portraits of bus passengers and train jumpers, of low-level smugglers and their clients, revealing the extent to which the horror and displacement suffered by Arnovis has become commonplace for generations of migrants.

The Dispossessed thus comes to occupy a unique middle ground between a narrative story of immigration and a historical survey of asylum. While many immigration books center around the authors’ efforts to remap journeys, reconstruct stories, and piece together voices to create vivid and wrenching accounts, Washington instead tunes his book to a multitude of voices, experiences, and resonant moments in history and literature. He is quick to cede his voice to others who can describe with greater immediacy what they have seen and experienced.

He is also unafraid of long silences, unanswered questions, and offhand comments that linger in the air. “I can do pretty good braids,” a woman hiding out from immigration officials tells Washington. As she braids the hair of a social worker, she begins to recall how she used to do this in exchange for extra food while she was locked away in a family detention center. “Does it hurt?” she asks the social worker, interrupting her own story. “Tell me if it hurts. I’m scared to hurt you.”

Increasingly, immigration narratives are shaped by the voices of those who have actually lived through border crossings and dealt firsthand with the long shadow of illegality. The past few years have brought the publication of groundbreaking works from poets like Javier Zamora, journalists like Jose Antonio Vargas, and memoirists like Julissa Arce, Reyna Grande, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose tender and profound Children of the Land was published earlier this year. For readers untouched by the violence that grows at our borders, voices such as these are vital for comprehending the true cost of American immigration enforcement. Another recent book is Rosayra Pablo Cruz’s The Book of Rosy, a first-person account of the horrors of child separation.

After fleeing Guatemala with her two sons in 2018, Pablo Cruz, who goes by “Rosy,” arrives at the Arizona border and dutifully turns herself in to immigration agents. She is soon torn away from her boys, ages fifteen and five, and made to endure close to eighty days apart from them as she navigates a maze of detention centers, courts, nonprofit aid groups, media outlets, and foster care systems. Her book is written in collaboration with Julie Schwietert Collazo—the founder of Immigrant Families Together, one of the chief advocacy groups that emerged in response to child separation—and it thus tells the story not only of Rosy’s perseverance but of the immense outcry and ad hoc organizing that was required for her to be released from detention and reunited with her children.

The plainspoken tone of The Book of Rosy is striking, as is its vivid accumulation of detail. Because migrants are so rarely afforded a platform to articulate their desires and imaginings free from intermediaries, the book also feels, at times, like a radical text. Rosy’s straightforward observations of seldom-seen places along the migrant trail push back against reductionist misrepresentations of the voyage north. She writes of watching nursing mothers, whose milk often dries up during the journey, “trying to coax the last drops” out of a breast. “They would be as disappointed and as desperate as their babies when it yielded no more,” she observes, “and then they tried the other breast, urging it to provide just one more feeding.”

After she is separated from her boys and detained in Arizona, Rosy gives readers an inside view of the very same facilities that are at the center of Migrating to Prison. In contrast to García Hernández’s system-wide assessment, Rosy’s is filled with quotidian details: the lines to use microwaves and the anxious quarrels that break out there, the way prisoners use toothpaste to clean and whiten their undergarments, and how women starved of diversion and intimacy perform peep shows for male detainees through opposing windows, risking reprisal from guards who threaten them with solitary confinement. As her own form of distraction, Rosy imagines what kinds of clothes her fellow prisoners might wear if not forced into ill-fitting jumpsuits, and which accessories would best match their personalities, sizing them up just as she would the customers who passed through the market where she sold such things in Guatemala.

Aside from these flights of fancy, most days in detention are defined by “mind- and soul-numbing dullness,” and Rosy describes a litany of insufferable conditions that match with grim precision the testimony of more recent detainees like Enrique:

In my short time here I have seen women go crazy with hysteria. They curl up on their bunks and refuse to leave their cells. They cry without ceasing, as if their bodies are bottomless wells of tears. I have seen them shut down, becoming shells of who they once were. I have seen them lose their will to fight, their will to go on.

What sustains Rosy, like many detainees, is an unbridled faith in God and weekly calls with her children at a foster center in New York, where they live in a home with six other boys who have also been separated from their parents, cared for by a woman who calls them all mijo—“my son.” But where are their real mothers, Rosy wonders? Are they locked up alongside her, sleeping in the cells next door?

At many points in her book-length testimony, Rosy suggests the lasting nature of a trauma that, for her and her boys, did not end after their reunion. “The separation has left us all with enormous amounts of emotional debris,” she declares. “We are impatient, anxious, and insecure. We are uncertain of ourselves and one another, and how to relate to each other after such a painful time apart.” It is a sobering reminder that the abuses of the Trump era will reverberate long after his administration comes to an end. More broadly, Washington and García Hernández warn that the structural framework, political culture, and policy justifications that undergird today’s enforcement measures have persisted through administrations of both parties despite intense pressure and scrutiny. Simply returning to the policies of the Obama years, which set their own records for deportation and immigrant incarceration, would be no worthy goal.

Late in his book, Washington recounts the story of Hilda, a Guatemalan mother who, at the time of writing, had been living in sanctuary with her son for more than three years in a Presbyterian church outside Austin, Texas. After losing her asylum case on appeal, Hilda became so terrified of deportation, separation from her son, and renewed detention that she found herself unable to sleep. “ICE comes for me even in my dreams,” she confesses. Despite the best efforts of the church, one of its congregants concedes, the place has become for her another kind of prison. This, in effect, is what America has turned itself into—a place where safety and protection have become, for so many, unattainable, and where escape from physical incarceration often leads only to an imprisonment of different design.

In the post-Trump era, whether it begins next year or in 2025, advocates for migrant and human rights will be well advised to regard reformist rhetoric with skepticism. A system that allows for the internment of asylum-seekers and families with children, after all, does not need reform—it needs dismantling. García Hernández points out that past efforts to reform institutions such as prisons have often helped solidify and entrench their role in society rather than reduce their power to cause harm. In the aftermath of family separation, for example, the Trump administration has sought to detain more families together, aggressively pushing courts to reconsider old limits on the number of days minors can be held in federal custody, all while suggesting that more money be funneled toward detention facilities so that they might bring their conditions to a higher standard.

The idea of abolishing immigration detention and other cornerstones of border enforcement may sound radical, but it is the only legitimate starting place for negotiation. After all, our current practices stand in clear violation of a half-century of internationally agreed-upon norms. There is actually a good precedent for dismantling these systems—under Eisenhower, García Hernández notes, the federal government acted deliberately to bring an end to the detention of migrants, a pause that lasted for a quarter-century. While politicians claimed the move was rooted in a postwar commitment to the “humane administration” of laws, the real reasons were financial rather than altruistic, allowing the government to close costly prisons while satisfying the market’s desire for more cheap labor. Nevertheless, García Hernández writes, “in fact, if not in law, the United States came remarkably close to abolishing immigration imprisonment.”

Today, immigrant incarceration is at its zenith. But as more and more Americans become aware of the need to remake the criminal justice system through decarceration, ending cash bail, reallocating police budgets, decriminalizing drugs, and reenfranchising the formerly incarcerated, there is hope that ending immigrant detention might be added to the rallying cry. Recognizing this alignment of causes, García Hernández points to the writings of Angela Davis. Abolition, she writes, “involves re-imagining institutions, ideas, and strategies, and creating new institutions, ideas, and strategies that will render prisons obsolete.” The same holds true for “detention centers,” “processing facilities,” and any other euphemism that might take their place.

In August, as I concluded my interview with Enrique about his time in the La Palma Detention Center, I remembered the advice of a social worker from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project who had advised me to always close conversations by gesturing toward moments of hope and joy. I asked Enrique about the day he was released from prison, about the moment he found out he would finally be reunited with his family. He thought first of their safety, he said, deciding to quarantine at a hotel while he made arrangements with his wife to surprise their daughters. “It’s a blessing to be with them again,” he told me, “but it also feels strange.” As he waits for his asylum case to be decided, he still fears that he might somehow end up back in detention, that it all might happen again. He keeps in touch with other men in La Palma, and he recalls the way word spread each time a fellow detainee was about to be released. “Don’t forget about us,” Enrique always told them as they prepared to leave. “Remember what’s happening in here.”

  1. *

    See Julia Preston’s “Deportation Nation” in these pages, October 8, 2020.