As Santiago pulled his car into the lot, he was almost blinded by the low sun. He parked next to a few other cars and rolled down the windows, allowing the salty air to enter. He tuned the radio to his favorite classic rock station, cracking a grin as Jimi Hendrix’s instrumental solo began to build up to the climactic percussive beats, colorful riffs, and vocal melodies he loved. He watched the gentle waves crashing back and forth on the shoreline in front of him as two people tossed a frisbee that cut through the soft breeze. This was exactly what Santiago needed at the end of a tough week of work and school. He felt a sense of relief watching the sunset over the expansive Pacific waters in San Diego. To him, this was home. He took a deep breath and let his shoulders sink into the back of his seat.
But Santiago’s moment of peace was quickly interrupted by an authoritative knock on his window. He looked out and his chest tightened with a deep anxiety—standing outside of his car was a police officer motioning for him to get out. Santiago held his breath as he reached for the handle and cracked open the door. The hinges on the side of the door creaked as he stepped out of the car. The officer looked Santiago up and down before informing him in a stern voice that he was parked on private property; he then demanded identification. Santiago felt a lump form in his throat as he reached into his pocket for the small, flimsy card that he had received a week earlier. He pulled out his new driver’s license, provided under a new California law (AB60, Chapter 524) that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license without proving status as a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The officer glanced down at the license and then back at Santiago several times. He held the card to his face, examining it so closely that it seemed he could have memorized every word. When he finally looked up from the card, he told Santiago that he was going to check his record. As the officer walked back to his patrol car, Santiago’s mind raced—What was going to happen? Could this go on his record? Why didn’t the cop call out any of the other cars in the area for being on private property? Where was the sign that said it was private property?
Before Santiago could answer any of the questions racing through his mind, three more government cars pulled up to the lot at the beach, one of which flaunted three letters that no one in Santiago’s position would ever wish to see:
I C E
As the immigration officials stepped out of the car, a deep fear swelled in Santiago’s heart—what would come of his future in the United States, his home for the past five years? Law AB60, which permits the distribution of licenses like Santiago’s, explicitly prohibits officers from reporting permit or license recipients to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—but Santiago didn’t know that at the time. His eyes widened and his body froze as two men in blue jackets approached him. They asked him for formal immigration documentation, like a visa or a green card. Santiago told them that he didn’t have any identification with him aside from his license. He tried to plead with the officers, saying that he was still studying and working and needed to stay in San Diego. His entire family was there—but nothing he said seemed to matter. He was arrested on the spot.
Before Santiago knew it, he found himself caught in a twisted game of hopscotch, shipped around an intricate network of immigrant detention centers spread across the country. But this game of hopscotch lacked direction. Santiago wasn’t moving toward something; he was free-falling in a state of limbo with no hope of grounding himself. He was one of thousands of bodies lost in a complex and arbitrary sea of centers, cells, officers, and inmates stuck in the same contorted madness. Santiago spent his first two days at a detention facility in Arizona, and was then moved to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia for 20 days before being transferred to Folkston Processing Center in southern Georgia for five and a half months. After that, he landed at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. At the center, he wore an orange jumpsuit, appeared at immigration court hearings, and had extremely restricted contact with his loved ones. In a single moment, everything Santiago had—his classes, his job, and, most importantly his family—was stripped away from him as he entered a system designed to oppress and dehumanize.
Santiago left his home in Guatemala in 2013, a decision he wishes he hadn’t had to make. A 15-year-old at the time, he was in high school when gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha (more commonly known as MS-13) arrived at his school to recruit him. His job would be to help them kidnap, steal from, and kill community members—Santiago’s neighbors, friends, and family. The men in the gang told Santiago that if he chose not to join, he would have to pay $700. If he didn’t pay, they would take his life.
Threats like these are not uncommon in many urban regions of Guatemala. A report from 2013 indicates that close to 40 percent of Guatemalans express fear that they will be victims of crime in their own neighborhood and nearly a third of Guatemalans indicate that their neighborhoods are impacted by gang activity.
When Santiago began to receive threats from the MS-13 members, he knew he had to make a decision. He wanted to continue his studies but quickly realized he didn’t have the money to pay the gang and ensure his safety. With the threat of violence so close, Santiago decided to escape to the only other place he had family—San Diego. He embarked alone on the long, arduous journey through Mexico, staying in locals’ homes and shelters along the way. Although the travel was tough, Santiago fondly remembers the support he received from people throughout Mexico. The people in the towns he passed through were warm to him, helping him and other migrants by providing floors to sleep on and meals to eat.
When Santiago finally arrived in the U.S., he united with his aunt, uncle, and cousins in California. Connecting with his loved ones after the long trek through Mexico filled Santiago with hope for his uncertain future. Despite the language and cultural barriers he faced as an immigrant, he felt unconditionally supported by his family, who helped him find a job and integrate into American culture. Despite the forced circumstances of his migration, Santiago decided to move forward and make a future for himself in the United States. He enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program at the local community college and began working at his family friend’s contracting company. He found comfort in his network of coworkers and ESL classmates, who were largely Central Americans like Santiago. Santiago’s brothers and father joined him in San Diego soon after he arrived, since they had begun receiving similar threats from MS-13. Now, Santiago’s whole family is in the U.S.
Sitting in his cell in the Irwin County Detention Center, Santiago felt stagnated and isolated from his normal way of life. He struggled to maintain the usual positivity so central to his identity. Here, he had no family, no emotional support, and no outlet for physical activity. He simply lived day-to-day in a body he felt unattached to, wandering through the cold halls of the facility without purpose. He wasn’t allowed to spend much time outside and hadn’t seen a sunset in months. He often wondered how he could be detained for so long when he had never been charged with a crime. Over the course of his seven-month stay, he saw countless other people with extensive criminal histories come and go, while he remained locked up. It seemed his existence was his crime.
All Santiago wanted was to go home, so he could continue his studies and be with his family. In this time of confusion, frustration, and emptiness, Santiago found one form of support amid the isolating environment of his imprisonment: the legal help of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). SIFI, a pro bono initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center that represents immigrants in detention centers across the Deep South, was the only place he could turn to for support during those dark months. The group applies for bond motions which, if granted, conditionally release the detainee if they agree to pay a certain amount of money, attend all their court hearings, and comply with deportation orders. Not only did SIFI’s attorneys and volunteers help him with his legal immigration application, but they also gave him valuable moments of genuine human connection that he rarely found with others in the centers.
Working as a volunteer legal assistant with SIFI this past summer, I connected with Santiago on both a professional and emotional level. As I sat in the attorney visitation room with Santiago, I saw my reflection in the thick glass pane that separated me from Santiago. Santiago’s positivity radiated through the cold glass and contradicted the bleak situation he found himself in. His smile was powerful in the stagnant air that filled the visitation room, and his laugh challenged the narrow white walls that confined us. He filled the space with an intense human energy that contradicted the very design of the room.
In between our logistical conversations about his legal case, we shared our ambitions, favorite activities, and stories from our lives. We were the same age and from the same state. We were both enrolled in higher education programs and were ambitious about the future that lay ahead. We both had families that we deeply cared about, families that would sacrifice everything to protect us. And despite the frustrations we’d encountered in society, we were both optimists. I saw so much of myself in Santiago, and that was the most painful part. What did he do wrong that I didn’t? Why does he deserve to be on that side of the glass as I leave the facility to return home at the end of the day? As I searched for answers to these questions, my mind went numb.
Since November, several private prison corporations have profited from detaining Santiago and those like him, including LaSalle Corrections, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and GEO Group. Today, companies like these operate 62 percent of all immigrant detention centers and run nine out of the 10 largest centers, all to maintain a profit. Daily quotas that require 34,000 beds to be filled in these centers have caused both immigrant detention and corporate profit to skyrocket over the last decade. In the past seven years, CCA’s profits have increased from $133,373,000 to $195,022,000, while GEO’s profits increased 224 percent. These companies use Santiago’s detainment as a tactic to ensure their own continued economic gain.
Santiago dreams of becoming an architect. Before his arrest, he was five classes away from receiving his ESL diploma. He was excited to start taking art and architecture classes the following year. Now, he’s behind on his program and doesn’t know if he’ll even get the chance to pursue his career goals if he doesn’t gain legal status.
My meetings with Santiago were a small part of the larger effort of the SIFI team to fight for the release of detained immigrants from the Irwin County Detention Center. During my time in Ocilla, the small team of lawyers I worked with filed a bond motion for Santiago, hoping to release him from detention within the month so that he could continue fighting his immigration case outside of the detention facility. This bond motion succeeded, and Santiago has since been released from detention. His family worked together to pay the steep bond price, a price eerily similar to the monetary ultimatum he received from MS-13 almost six years ago. He is now fighting his immigration case back home in San Diego, where he can once again enjoy the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.
Many others like Santiago who haven’t been lucky enough to be released on bond from these facilities. As I write this sentence, thousands of people are losing themselves in the directionless hopscotch game that profits from forcefully removing them from their lives, aspirations, and families.
When I asked what message he wants the world to know, Santiago replied, “They aren’t holding up justice as they should be.” Immigrant detention outlasts the fleeting bursts of national media attention that the issue gets. It has been stripping people of their dignity, their rights, and their lives for years, and will continue to do so until it is stopped. Santiago may be safe now, but if the justice that he so desperately wants to see will come to fruition here in the United States, then we need to recognize that our freedoms are bound together. We will not know justice until the thousands of wrongfully detained immigrants turning profit for large corporations are liberated.
Heat Issue | November 2018