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A spiritual crisis without borders: Immigrant stories after deportation

U.S/Mexico border
U.S/Mexico border  Photo: F. Otero Perandones / F. Otero Perandones

Note: I first met Jill Anderson a couple years ago at Intermountain Yearly Meeting and got to know her better at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya.

Her work with immigrants who have been deported from the U.S. is inspiring and she operates from a very clear-eyed sense of outrage and solidarity. She has been working for several years on a book, Los Otros Dreamers, which collects the stories of immigrants after deportation to Mexico. This guest post draws from that work and gives a sense of how destructive current immigration practices are on those deported and on the families left behind.

Find out more about that project or pre-order the book here.  - Lucy

Growing up in Houston, Texas, I had no idea that the first privatized immigration detention center was being built in 1984 just a few hours from where I grew up. It is only recently, while living in Mexico City and collaborating with deported youth who are trying to rebuild their lives post-deportation, that I have become witness to the suffering wrought by our U.S. immigration detention and deportation system.

It is a legally-sanctioned system that is broken, negligent, and evil (oh, the banality of this evil!).

As detailed in the AFSC flier on deportation and detention in the United States, “in 2009, the U.S. government detained approximately 400,000 people at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion…in a hodgepodge of about 250 facilities.” Mark Dow’s 2004 book, American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, describes in compassionate detail this “hodgepodge” of a system: eerily invisible in the midst of towns and cities across the country, startlingly bureaucratic, and starkly inhumane. It is a corporate business model that has relied on public funds and public policy to generate exponential growth—in people detained and therefore profit gained—since 1996.

Border wall by craigregularPerla* moved to Texas with her mother and grandmother when she was eight years old. In 2007, she kept an appointment with a local police office regarding an accusation made by a former boss. The seemingly routine questioning led to her immediate detention for having an expired visa.

Over the next twenty-four hours she was transferred to and from the county jail and the immigration detention center twice, which “required” a total of four strip searches. As tears began to roll down her cheeks, Perla described what she could remember of those twenty-four hours.

They got me to get naked and they searched me everywhere and I just felt so violated. I hadn't even ever had sex, and they just looked into my privates like that. And they couldn't understand why I was crying so hard. And they were like, “it's a female officer, you shouldn’t feel bad.” And I never had anyone look at me like this. And they said, “You are crying too much about it.” Then they put me in a cell. … Then they took me to the ICE office, at the time I didn't know it was the ICE office, so they strip-searched me again. To make sure I wasn't taking anything, I guess? And they put me in this armored van with this other guy.

It was her birthday. After several hours of waiting and insisting, she was finally able to talk to her mother on the phone. Her mom said to her, “Don't doubt that you are a good kid, you are a good kid, you are still a good kid. I love you and happy birthday and we are working really hard to get you out.”

A self-described “nerdy girl who quotes Thoreau and swoons at Emily Dickinson,” Perla was released on parole and after fighting her removal orders at great financial cost, she was ordered to leave the country in 2009.

Since returning to Mexico, she has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. She has never met her newest niece. She is making the best of exile from her home and family in the birth country where she will always, in her own words, “be a foreigner.”

When speculating on the distant possibility of going home to the United States, she muses, “I'm not saying I never want to go back to the States. I would go back. But it is like an abusive relationship, you know.” 

Sky by Nin SolisIn 2007, Dulce was detained for two months. On her way home from a Ricky Martin concert, immigration officials questioned her on the bus and detained her en route. Before her friends could visit her, she was transferred from a Florida immigration prison to the Houston detention center near my childhood home.

In harried meetings with a deportation agent, she remembers the agent saying, “You do not look or sound Mexican.” Dulce has lighter skin and she speaks fluent English after graduating from high school in Florida.

Indefinitely detained with over a hundred other women, Dulce signed a “voluntary departure” order that resulted in her deportation in the middle of the night. In what has been described to me as a common practice in multiple interviews, she was told to “run ahead and don’t look back” with a five-minute window before the men under deportation orders (with possible but unconfirmed criminal backgrounds) were released to walk across the international bridge after her.

Six years later in Mexico City, Dulce wakes up at all hours of the night with nightmares, and she “can still feel the weight of the handcuffs on her wrists.” She has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Syndrome, she was medicated for a year and a half, and she still struggles with overwhelming bouts of depression. Her parents and siblings do their best to support her via Skype calls from Florida, and she says she “will never be happy until she is home” with them. 

Dulce and Perla are intelligent, inspiring, and ambitious young women. Meeting them over a cup of hot chocolate, their big smiles and bigger dreams shine forth. Their strength is matched by their honesty in sharing the profound emotional toll of the extreme violations of their humanity and their sovereignty by the U.S. government. From one day to the next, these women experienced a total rupture of their sense of self, their freedom, and their safety.

Post-deportation, the trauma perpetuated by a corporate-government system that is blindly racist (“You don’t look Mexican.”) and coldly misogynist (“You are crying too much”) extends far beyond the territorial limits of the United States. It is a spiritual crisis without borders.

The wounds of immigration detention and deportation are as “invisible-ized” as the concrete, windowless immigration detention centers. Today alone, hundreds of men, women, and children will experience something similar to Perla’s and Dulce’s nightmares, and the so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform under weary debate on Capitol Hill does too little to dismantle this evil in our midst.

As a U.S. citizen and an immigrant in Mexico, who is inclined to look on the bright side and to articulate clarion calls of hope amidst crisis, today I feel righteous anger, deep sadness, and great concern. 

*Perla and Dulce are pseudonyms. The photo of the sky is by Nin Solis.


About the Author

Jill Anderson was born in Utah, raised in Texas, and lives in Mexico City. She is one of the 213.9 million international immigrants in the world today. Since 2005, she has collaborated with immigrants and refugees in the United States and in Mexico.