When it comes to detention, it's about the stories behind the statistics

The following are remarks made by Elaine J. Cohen, a consultant with Grassroots Leadership's Hutto Visitation Program, at ImagiNation: Immigration, an event held at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas featuring immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas and his film DOCUMENTED.   

I have been visiting women at the Hutto Detention center in Taylor, Texas for almost three years — and it has changed my world view and understanding, not only of geo-politics, but of the human experience.  I want to tell you a little about what I’ve learned visiting women in immigrant detention and how you can visit, too. 

I’ve met many women in detention over the years. Out of respect for the dignity and safety of the women that I visit, I will not say their names, though I believe mentioning their country of origin is timely and may help you understand better what has driven so many to come to the U.S.

The first woman I would like to tell you about is from Honduras, the same country that so many families and children are fleeing from right now.   I met her a few weeks ago and two different members of our visitation program have interviewed her.  The story she told each of them was the same.  She told us of the repeated rapes she endured as a young girl — and again by the coyotes who were supposed to bring her safely across the border.  Something else happened, she was picked up by the border patrol and she now sits in immigrant detention at Hutto, which is very much like a prison, hoping to be granted asylum. 

I can also tell you of the men who started the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. CCA is the for-profit prison company that operates Hutto and many other private prisons and detention centers. When they opened their first Immigrant Detention Center in Houston, one was heard to remark that they reckoned they could sell prisons and detention beds   “just like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.”

Sleeping in one of those beds is another woman from Honduras we visited two weeks ago who told us of being extorted by gang members as she left work.  A single mother of three in San Pedro Sula, which has the highest murder rate in the world, she was told that she had to pay up or they would kill her.  The next day she had no money to give and after leaving work was badly beaten — a friend who she spoke to later on the phone told her that she must leave immediately.  That very evening she brought her children to her mother and left with nothing but the clothes on her back.  When a few days later she spoke to her mother, she heard that the friend who warned her was killed by the same gang — for interfering with their business.   She had told us that at her interview the judge said she wasn’t crying enough and he didn’t believe her.  She was deported.

For some people, stories need numbers.  I can give you some numbers. The number 34,000 may not seem significant, until one learns that it is the number of immigrants that Congress has mandated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who we know as “ICE,” keep in immigrant detention daily.  Multiply 34,000 by $164 and you get $5,576,000.  $164 is the average cost of maintaining someone in Immigration Detention.  $5,576,000 is only one day.  Multiply that by 365 and one can get an idea of how much money CCA and other private prison companies like the GEO Group, CEC and LaSalle are making in the Detention of Immigrants.

The immigrant detention quota has a huge impact on human lives. For example, on the morning that I began to prepare these remarks, I received a call from another woman from Honduras — one I had visited for months before she was released last year.  Before her release, she was one of the 34,000. She lives in Austin and we talk from time to time.  That morning she was really upset.  She told me that she just heard that the gangs had murdered her 40 year old cousin, a mother of six children. A few months ago, other cousins, two brothers and one of their sons had also been killed.  This is one family.  My friend, whose own life was filled with brutality, was visibly shaken by these latest deaths.  Do you think that the children of my friend’s cousin might one day make the journey north?  Will we lock them up in detention centers when they do — to fill a quota?

Immigrant Detention is one of the least known aspects of the corrupt immigration system.  Some of us have come to think of them as American Gulags.  There are 25 Immigration Detention centers in Texas, more than any other state in the union, and many are operated by for-profit prison companies, like CCA at Hutto.  But as this segment of the panel is to focus on what you can do, I’d like to tell you about the program that I work with in Austin: the Hutto Visitation Program.  I offer it as a model in the hopes that you in the Dallas community can begin to think about starting a Detention Visitation Program here.  There are more than a dozen prisons in Texas that also detain immigrants. The Johnson County Detention Center in Cleburne is closest to Dallas.  Grassroots Leadership, with whom I work in Austin, is committed to helping you develop a visitation program there.  At this point, none of us have visited it.  If anyone here is interested in doing so, please talk to me after this panel.  

Much attention has been given to the children at the border.  But let’s not forget that the men and women currently in immigrant detention might well be the parents of these children, or their uncles and aunts.  They, too, are human beings worthy of compassion and care while they are being held in Detention.   Many have come to the U.S. to escape the violence that has overtaken their countries. It is ironic that they are coming here, as U.S. policy helped create the conditions they are fleeing; but that’s why the U.S. has an obligation to protect refugees that are escaping from persecution and organized violence.

I invite you to join with me, to reach out to those who are far from home and family, and share your hearts and spirits with them.  There is no statistic that can match the knowledge that your friendship will change the lives of those caught in Immigrant Detention.