Freedom for Immigrants

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Migration is about movement, yet the journey often ends in the denial of movement, especially if one migrates to the U.S. This country detains more immigrants than any other country in the world, often in deplorable conditions. Yet many people in this country do not know about these conditions, which amount to imprisonment for the simple act of crossing a border without papers. The detention centers are often geographically isolated, compounding the isolation of the people being held there. The situation has been exacerbated in recent years due to the increasingly draconian and punitive policies advanced by the Trump administration, making immigration detention an urgent human rights issue. 

Under the auspices of an Engaged Cornell curriculum grant, FGSS has been working to address this social justice issue, focusing on the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, NY.  Working with the Buffalo-based group Justice for Migrant Families (JFMF), Professor Jane Juffer organized a Cornell chapter of the group in fall 2019. JFMF provides direct support for detained people, including visitation, connection to legal aid, reporting abuses, and other forms of advocacy. Our Cornell group made four trips to Batavia to visit people over the course of the 2019-20 academic year (visits were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic), and some of us are still in touch via text and video calls with people we met. 

This work will also be integrated into a class, Feminist Theory and Practice (cross listed with Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Government) that Professor Juffer has taught three times and will teach again in fall 2020, each time with a large portion focused on immigrant detention. Feminist studies is committed to working at the intersections of theory and practice, yet often we remain in the classroom, only talking about this intersection. Our goal—and the mission of Engaged Cornell--is to enable students to put theory into practice, albeit provisionally.

Collaboration with both JFMF and people in detention transforms the notion of “visitation’ from one of benevolence or charity into a grassroots struggle for systemic change. While we valorize the power of the face-to-face encounter, we also aim to place these individual encounters within a larger structural analysis. What prompts each person to have to leave their home countries? What immigration policies have caused them to be held in detention rather than being released on their own recognizance or on bond? How are they negotiating the labyrinth of immigration law—the only legal arena in the U.S. that does not guarantee people the right to an attorney?

We put the theory into practice through the following steps:

  • Visitation. JFMF helps us coordinate these visits, as they have set up a system for communicating with detainees and arranging visits (a cumbersome process that involves phone messages and knowledge of people’s “alien registration numbers”). How do we conduct these visits with empathy and generosity so as to establish rapport, valorize their experiences, and counter the dehumanization of immigrants? These goals are hampered somewhat by the physical situation: we are separated from the detainees by a window and must talk on a phone that often crackles. This one-hour period may be the only time during the week when the person feels in control of their encounter, so it is especially important that we learn how to actively listen and process their needs rather than imposing our sense of what matters or what needs to be done. These constraints have of course been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic; all in-person visits to Batavia have been halted. Many of us are now volunteering for the phone line that JFMF set up to reach people inside.
  • Documenting conditions in the Batavia center. Due to the fact that Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) operates in a no-man’s land of little accountability, it is difficult to ascertain what is happening inside. Our conversations thus become a critical site of potential intervention. We ask what detainees need in terms of their health (physical and mental), food, religion, contact with families, and reading materials. We inquire into whether they are having any issues with guards or other detainees. After the visit, we enter this information into the Freedom for Immigrants’ database (known as Vianey); the national group can then track where abuses are occurring and plan for what might be done. 
  • Writing their narratives. How do put these stories into an accessible format while also maintaining the integrity of their experiences? These stories come from both people detained—if they feel comfortable sharing information—as well as people released from detention, awaiting their hearings or deported. JFMF keeps in touch with many people whom they visited, so we would be able to follow up with these people and interview them. The goal is to illustrate that many people are deported before they even get a chance to tell their stories to an immigration judge—either because they were denied the chance to advance their case to an asylum hearing or because they became so desperate while being held in detention that they “voluntarily” decided to accept deportation. Thus far, Professor Juffer has set up a blog to convey the experiences of one woman: https://www.elisabethletters.com/blog