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What I learned about detention, law, and the immigrant experience

        Hello everyone! My name is Drew Gullahorn and I’ve been an intern at Adelante during this fall semester. I wanted to write a piece about my time with Adelante, sharing some of what I’ve learned through my experience and the stories that I have encountered.

         First, I’ll say a bit about myself. I’m originally from Nashville, and I moved to Knoxville to attend UTK. I’m a senior majoring in Global Studies and Philosophy with a minor in Religious Studies. Immigrant communities and Hispanic culture had a large role in my childhood in Nashville. Whether it was through my Spanish-immersion school, sports teams, or my job as a cook in a Mexican restaurant, I was always surrounded by immigrants and their stories. I didn’t see the effect of this unique immersion at the time. I liked the good food I was eating and the bad words I was learning, but I didn’t notice the way that these experiences were shaping my heart. It was during an Ai Weiwei documentary in a global studies class that something clicked. I realized that I could spend my time at UTK diving into topics like immigration that I cared so deeply about. Shortly after class, I changed my major to global studies. I’ve enjoyed my classes, but the major felt arbitrary without an ‘action’ component. No point in having a bleeding heart with nothing to channel it. It was at this crossroads that I impulsively signed up for Dr. Meghan Conley’s sociology internship class. After hearing my interests, Dr. Conley recommended Adelante to me and I was immediately on board.

        My first meeting with Arléne Amarante was spent brainstorming ideas for how I could help Adelante. I’m not a law student, nor am I interested in being one, so we opted for a project that focused on both the stories of our clients and the story of Adelante. The broad idea was to paint a picture of Adelante’s community impact through a series of interviews with the organization’s clients, founders, and collaborators. This would hopefully give outsiders a good understanding of Adelante’s mission, as well as the lives it has impacted. In the end we only interviewed one client, but I hope that our work will serve as a foundation that other interns and employees can build upon.

         Before we got started with the interviews, Arléne asked if I would come to a client’s ICE check-in. I wasn’t sure what my role in this would be, or how I could possibly be helpful. She said I would be there for emotional support. I didn’t understand what she meant, but I went anyway. On a foggy Tuesday morning, I found myself navigating Cedar Bluff business parks in search of the elusive Department of Homeland Security office. It was an unmarked red brick building tucked away in a cul-de-sac. The only indicator that I was, in fact, at the right building was the sheet of paper taped to the window with a QR code for scheduling ICE check-ins. It felt like a building trying to hide itself, like a top-secret research facility from a sci-fi movie, but less romantic. I met up with Arléne, another intern, and the client (who I’ll refer to as NH) outside of the office. The door was locked, and after 15 minutes of knocking a man walked out. He impatiently took NH’s papers and retreated into the office. We waited outside for another 15 minutes. The other three were conversing in Mexican, Guatemalan, and Trinidadian Spanish while I mostly stood smiling, fulfilling my role as the emotional support. The man came out and said “You’re ok for now. Come back next year.” Mysterious answer, but good news nevertheless.

        Arléne explained that this inconclusive suspension of judgment by the ICE agent happens often when the immigrants show up with a group. This ambiguous forgiveness has emerged out of the Biden administration’s immigration policies, whereas Trump’s tenure was notoriously cutthroat. There was a legitimate possibility that NH would be thrown in a bus to be deported after this check-in, but this would make quite a scene in front of her support group. If there’s anything that this unmarked building hidden in a suburban business park doesn’t want to do, it's make a scene. Bodies and friendly faces make a tangible difference in these meetings.

       There’s an arbitrariness in the way that the U.S. handles all-things immigration, and this check in was my first taste of it. I would get to know this arbitrariness more intimately over the course of this semester. I spent the next few weeks reading case files, court proceedings, and op-eds that Arléne suggested for me. Eventually it came time for our interview with NH. On a Saturday in October, Arléne and I met with NH, her mother, and her sister at the Bearden Panera. The interview was intentionally unstructured. We had a few questions, but we really just wanted to hear NH and her family tell their story. And this is what they did for the first 80 minutes of the interview.

The story began in Guatemala, where extortion, violence, and multiple attempts on her father’s life led to their departure to a small town in Mexico. Here they faced a different kind of persecution. Their evangelical Christian faith led to another series of attacks. Their house was broken into and their dogs were poisoned and killed. They were not safe here, so decided to flee to the United States and apply for asylum. They made it to San Diego, where NH was separated from her family because she was over legal age. While her family was sent to Tennessee, NH was held in a Hielera while she waited to be sent to a detention center. Hieleras, also known as iceboxes, are places where immigrants are kept before getting sent to detention centers. These are small, crowded, and frigid rooms. The immigrants have no access to washrooms or medical services, and the only food they received were cold, pre-packaged burritos. NH waited here for two days before being sent to a detention center in St. Louis. Here, she spent 10-12 days before being shipped again to a detention center in Louisiana, where she would spend 14 months.

Words matter. There is a long history of phrases like “re-education center,” “conversion therapy,” and “concentration camp” being bureaucratic fronts for darker realities. The Department of Homeland Security seems to understand this well. “Detention center” is a wonderfully digestible façade for institutions that function more like the worst prisons. Over an hour of the interview served as a detailed description of these detention centers.

After 12 days in St. Louis, NH was ushered onto a plane to Louisiana. Of course, nobody told her that this was her destination. She had handcuffs around her hands and feet, and these cuffs were chained to all of the other immigrants. NH arrived at the frigid Louisiana shelter without any of her possessions. The only thing that she had to wear was the outfit provided for the immigrants, which, according to her, was totally insufficient for the weather that they were experiencing. Breakfast was at 5:00 every morning, which most people skipped because it was too cold outside to make the trek to the cafeteria. After a month in Louisiana, NH was allowed to call an ICE officer to talk about her situation. The officer told her that COVID had caused a backlog in immigration cases, and it would be a long time until her appeal could be heard. She had two options: she could wait it out in the detention center, or she could sign the papers to get deported. This was a difficult decision. She wanted to be with her family, but she also craved a taste of freedom and community that she’d been deprived of in this isolated and rigid detention center. She was very sick. During her time in Louisiana, NH had the flu multiple times, had severe dental pain, suffered from gastritis, and was dealing with depression. She wasn’t given proper medical care for any of these conditions. Many of her friends at the detention center opted to leave, but the promise of a speedy deportation proved to be a lie. Because of COVID, her friends had to wait 8 months before being deported. On top of this, the document they signed terminated their cases, so their chances to live in the U.S. were terminated. In other words, the document was another bureaucratic trap.

While NH was in Louisiana, NH’s mother was able to get in contact with Adelante. Arléne was able to explain to NH and her mother what was going on, and assured that NH would be reunited with her family. After hearing this, NH decided to not sign the deportation papers. Fourteen months after NH arrived in Louisiana, her application for asylum finally got a court hearing. The judge denied her application for asylum because her reason for leaving Guatemala “wasn’t severe enough.” There is a lot to say about the application process for asylum, but I will keep it concise. Central to these applications is a notion of ‘persecution’ that is weak, subjective, and uninformed. The judge found that NH, who had faced threats, extortion, and attempts at her father’s life due to their social class and religion, did not face persecution.

This was devastating. NH had gone through so much only for her application to get denied under these ridiculous grounds. She called Arléne to tell her that she was ready to sign the deportation papers. She was lonely and depressed in a prison that denied all of her autonomy. Arléne encouraged her to hold on. After another month or two, NH was unexpectedly released.

Her transition into a foreign world and her eventual reunion with her family is a story in and of itself, one where Adelante, as well as other churches and saints, played an instrumental role. Adelante still plays a huge role in NH’s life, helping her with housing, medical care, and countless other services.

NH’s story is just one of many stories that has been deeply impacted by Adelante’s work and mission. Unfortunately, there are tens of thousands of people just like NH who Adelante cannot advocate for. They will spend their time in a foreign prison without someone fighting on their behalf, without the comforting words of an American lawyer that speaks their language, and without the smiling face of an emotional support intern.

At the same time, Adelante and organizations like it are not the solution to the overarching problems. Adelante’s work, as seen in NH’s case, usually involves cleaning up messes that never should’ve happened in the first place. They are the nurses on the front lines of a completely avoidable war. In the interview, Arléne speaks on this in detail:

 

The arbitrariness is a problem because NH had no idea what to do half the time...[even] for me as a lawyer, [it made no sense] because she doesn’t have a criminal record, she's not a national security threat, she’s not a threat to the community, so of all the legal reasons that we say are valid to detain people, zero of them were there for her. It was this baffling moment of ‘well, the law says this, but it's this totally different thing in practice.’ This just never should’ve happened to NH or anyone else in the first place. In some sense, I would hate to have more resources to tackle more of these, just because we shouldn’t push the responsibility on the lawyers. And, you know, the immigrants to find lawyers. All of these things need to be easier. You shouldn't need a lawyer to get medical treatment [or a blanket]. It’s like basic human dignity issues. So I do wish I had more resources to help more people, but I think the real change needs to come with detention itself. Because we’re lying to ourselves if we’re saying that it’s not punitive or that it’s not a jail, and I think we need to start treating it like what it is. Instead of pretending like it’s not as bad as jail because we’re calling it detention. It’s creating this space for things to happen without any recourse because we’re calling it something else.

 

        Adelante wishes that its work wasn’t necessary, but it unfortunately is. This is a duality that many non-profit and humanitarian organizations have to live in. The large-scale immigration issues, whether it be detention centers, asylum applications, or bureaucratic incompetence, cannot be fixed by Adelante. This reality is a disheartening one to confront as an idealistic college student, and devastating one to live in for the countless immigrants in this country. I have no desire to candy wrap the story of my time with Adelante. I fear that any attempt at a happy ending to this piece would be turning a blind eye to a great deal of unresolved injustice. However, it would be more unjust to ignore the real change that I’ve witnessed during my time here. In the case of NH and many others, Adelante has found a corner of the world where they could make a real difference, and they protect this corner with vehemence. They are central to many happy endings within a larger narrative, none of which feel small.

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