Last month I joined immigrant rights partners in Southwest Florida to visit our immigrant neighbors being held at the Glades County Detention Center. We could not bring any cameras inside. All I could do was draw and take notes of what I saw and experienced. When we entered the facility – run by the County Sheriff, who gets federal funding to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a detention center— I found myself smiling to the staff, trying to beam love wherever I went to the county officers, the detention officer, the ICE officials, everyone. The tour of the building still felt abstract- cinderblock walls, fluorescent lights, that really awful processed-food cafeteria grey water smell coming from the kitchen, the glorified sandbox that baked in the Florida sun that provided one hour of outside fresh air for detainees. That sweet, make-nice part of me wanted to believe that this wasn’t so bad.
Then we went up to the control room. Like a Foucaultian nightmare, we saw all the detainees in their “pods.” I turned my head to hide my tears from the ICE and County Officers. Who was I to be up in this room with the freedom to leave at any time when these men and women were trapped in a multi-use space where you ate, slept, used the bathroom and tried to pass the time each day?
We were able to sit down with a group of men and listen to their stories and experiences. All of the men were people of color, detained anywhere from 2-4 months. One man corrected us and said, “C’mon, man, we’re not detainees, we are inmates.” The injustice and despair of the men was palpable. All of them were waiting: waiting for a court date; for communication from their lawyers; to discover if their fate would be to be deported to a nation where they never even lived; waiting to be reunited with their spouses and kids. Some came over to the US when they were toddlers. Quite a few were picked up for not coming to a court date as Legal Permanent Residents. They say they never received any notification of the court date. The harassments all men received from county officers each day ranged from having their daily-use cup swiped from them (to replace was $1) to taunting lines like, “Go tell ICE about your human rights!” when detainees would dare complain. Complaints could result in threats of physical harassment. One man said he was living a half-life and that the county officers treated them all like dogs. All the men agreed; they were in limbo.
The officers came into the multi-purpose room where we were talking. After two hours, our time was up. We were supposed to also meet with the women, but for a vague reason the ICE officials told us they did not want to meet with us since we were not legal aid. We wondered what the women might have shared with us. And then, we shook hands with all the detained men and left. I walked out into sunshine and freedom and they walked back into the nightmare of Limbo, waiting.
Set up a tour. Contact your local immigrant ally group. It’s not fun or easy. But it is the right thing to do. The oppression I witnessed is happening in my backyard, a little over an hour from my house. My faith dictates that I shall not ignore it forget it. I am on the side of Love.
Rev. Allison Farnum
Minister, UU Church of Ft. Myers
In community and denominational life, Allison currently serves on the board of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, an ally organization of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Rev. Allison is also co-president of the interfaith congregation-based community organizing group, Lee Interfaith for Empowerment (LIFE).