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  • Silent Killing:The Inhumanity of U.S. Immigration Detention
  • Kate Swanson

I have never been a criminal nor a killer or a thief. But just because I am running from war in my country, does that make the reason I am in the prison for one year? After I am running from prison, from going to jail in my country? … I feel so emotionally challenged and tortured and to me this is what we call silent killing. How can somebody escaping from prison and come to you to help him, and instead of helping him you arrest him and put to jail again?

Political refugee from Cameroon, detained in the Otay Mesa Detention Center, California (Figure 1; DALC, 2019a)

Every day, hundreds of migrants and refugees from around the world arrive at the U.S.–Mexico border to ask for help. Yet instead of welcoming them into our nation, we lock them up. There are currently more than 38,000 men, women, and children being detained in more than 200 immigration detention centers spread out across the United States (Freedom for Immigrants, 2019). While some spend weeks in detention, others spend years.

In his most recent editorial, JLAG editor Johnny Finn (2019) argued that academics could no longer maintain a detached gaze, given current conditions at our border. I concur. We can no longer remain silent as migrants are dehumanized and locked up in for-profit prisons; as children are put in cages and denied access to soap, toothbrushes, and even diapers; and as our colleagues and human rights workers are prosecuted in federal court for providing food, water, and shelter to people in need. We need to use our knowledge, expertise, and voices to stop the dehumanization and criminalization of migrants and their allies at our borders. [End Page 176]

Over the past year, my personal outrage has pushed me to become deeply involved in developing a grassroots organization dedicated to providing financial and moral support to detained migrants and refugees in American immigration detention centers. This began over the summer of 2018, when the Donald Trump administration launched its zero tolerance policy at the border. In May 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the U.S. Department of Justice would begin prosecuting every person who crossed illegally into the United States, focusing particularly on migrants traveling with children. Before being overturned at the end of June 2018, this policy resulted in 2,600 children being torn from their families (ACLU, 2019). Many have yet to be reunited with their family members (Fetters, 2019).

After realizing that hundreds of these migrants and refugees were being locked up in the Otay Mesa Detention Center, less than twenty-five miles from our offices at San Diego State University, a small group of SDSU faculty and neighbors decided to take action. We began by sending letters of solidarity to thirty detained migrants and refugees who had been members of a recent Central American migrant caravan. Within a week, we received sixteen letters back from the Otay Mesa Detention Center. They told us that they needed money to pay for phone calls and to buy soap, shampoo, paper, pencils, and stamps. Others began telling us their stories, explaining how the violence in their home countries pushed them to flee in search of safety. Over the following weeks and months, we received hundreds of letters from migrants and refugees from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Colombia, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among many other nations.

Many also wrote to us about conditions in immigration detention. They wrote about forced labor, wage theft, medical neglect, contaminated or insufficient food, and lack of access to basic necessities, among other human rights violations. A letter from a fifty-year-old Guatemalan grandmother stated, "Well, each day the stay here becomes more unbearable. They keep the temperature intensely cold, our bones hurt. Meal times are irregular, the schedule is very variable, and the food isn't healthy. One official even said it was food for dogs" (Figure 2; DALC, 2018b).1 She went on to describe medical neglect, an inmate death, and frequent miscarriages among migrant women at the Otay Mesa...


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