If New Mexico seems like the middle of nowhere on a map, then Milan, NM, home of the Cibola County Correctional Center, is the middle of the middle of nowhere. Cibola, as we call the center, is a mixed-use facility run by the corporate correctional giant, CoreCivic. It is used as a local jail, as a prison for Federal Marshalls, and as a detention space for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE uses Cibola to process male asylum seekers through their Credible Fear Interview (CFI) before sending them to El Paso for removal proceedings. The facility is also used as a Protective Custody Unit for transgender women. My organization, Santa Fe Dreamers Project, along with New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, has been running a legal orientation program at Cibola for the last two years during which we have had contact with around over 10,000 asylum seekers. Since beginning our work there, nothing I have seen has given me any confidence that ICE or CoreCivic is capable of caring for the health or safety of my clients. Instead, I have witnessed abject human suffering at the hands of dehumanizing policies intent on criminalizing innocent people. In an attempt to explain what was happening to asylum seekers and the cost of these policies, we turned to video as a powerful medium: these two short films, produced by my colleague Sylvia Johnson at Santa Fe Dreamers Project, are testimony to the suffering.
Alpha Diallo’s case was the first political asylum victory I ever won. He fled torture at the hands of the Guinean government. He is a sensitive, intelligent young man. He loves language, studying and soccer. The journey from Guinea to the Mexican border was extremely dangerous and when he turned himself in at the port of entry he was shocked to find himself detained and treated like a criminal. He spent nearly seven months in detention; we weren’t safer, he was traumatized, no one won except a private prison company who made money off his incarceration. Watch Alpha’s story here:
REFUGE(E) from Free Roaming Studios on Vimeo.
Luz’s story of detention is emblematic of the treatment transwomen face from ICE. She spent months in torturous solitary confinement and was treated like an animal. One of the women she turned herself in with, Roxsana Hernandez, died when they were in Cibola together. Luz is a strong and brave young woman. She endured unimaginable brutality in her home country only to be met with brutality at the hands of our government. She was released after a team of lawyers, including the ACLU, put extraordinary pressure on ICE to do so. There are dozens of transwomen detained in Cibola County and even more fighting for their lives in all-male units across the Southwest. Watch Luz’s story here: https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/593554/trans-asylum-seeker/.
Neither Alpha nor Luz’s story is unique. In fact, their treatment is the same revolting treatment my staff at Santa Fe Dreamers Project and all my other colleagues doing detained work see on a daily basis. I, for one, am tired of talking to politicians, reporters, and the public about how conditions of ICE detention need to change. I have been doing it for years and the conditions have only gotten worse. No, the real problem with ICE detention is that it exists. It serves a xenophobic and racist political agenda and lines the pockets of corporate shareholders who invest in the correctional industry and its devastating architecture of oppression. It is time to stop detaining asylum seekers and instead invest in alternatives to detention that have been proven effective and humane, and include services that ensure asylum seekers understand the process and what their rights and obligations are. The fantasy that ICE hunting down and detaining non-criminals makes our country safer is not real. Congress must not fund ICE’s detention of asylum seekers. It is time we act, so the story of our country is the bravery and resilience of people like Alpha and Luz, and not the brutality of detention that further harms them.