Letters from Miguel: ‘I felt I had no option but to leave’

How my correspondence with an immigrant detainee has given me hope.

 

I’ve covered immigration as a journalist for almost 20 years, documenting the lives of families in different corners of the Western Hemisphere as they make the difficult decision to move to the U.S. to seek a better life. In the process, I’ve tried to help readers understand immigration policy, even as I personally relate to the challenge of making a new home in America, of learning a new language and cultural norms, of missing friends and family.

Yet over just the past two years, I’ve watched America — which welcomed me almost three decades ago — methodically close its doors to people from other cultures while dangerously scapegoating both new and longtime immigrants.

I know I’m not alone when I say how helpless it makes me feel, following the back-to-back news stories about migrant caravans, family separations and the inhumane conditions at immigrant camps and detention facilities. I sometimes feel ashamed to enjoy the freedoms I do, knowing that my government is refusing those same rights to others.

A section of the reinforced U.S.-Mexico border fence near the Otay Mesa entry point, as seen from Tijuana, Mexico.
Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

And yet many of us do our best to suppress those feelings, averting our gaze from people held in confinement; we are afraid to think about how debilitating it must feel to be cut off from your family, in a foreign place, without the prospect of freedom or a regular, productive life. Being held in detention must be particularly unsettling for recent asylum seekers or border-crossing migrants who came to this country seeking refuge and instead found themselves behind walls.

I’ve recently found one way to deal with my feelings of shame and helplessness — by exchanging letters with a man named Miguel. I found him through Detainee Allies, an organization started in June 2018 by a group of friends and neighbors from San Diego, California, who were disturbed by the disastrous Trump administration “zero tolerance” family separation policy, which is still in existence today despite a court order halting it and the growing public outcry against reports of mistreatment inside detention facilities. 

By getting hundreds of people around the world to write letters to immigrant detainees in the U.S., Detainee Allies hopes to create a lifeline for people inside the detention centers, as well as for those, like me, on the outside who feel like helpless witnesses to the White House’s inhumane actions.  

Miguel is being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego for at least a month, though he doesn’t know exactly how long it will be. So far, I’ve sent him two short letters and gotten one reply. I wrote to him because I feel so impotent and frustrated, and I know that someone like him must feel great despair and loneliness, too. I don’t know whether our correspondence can change anything, other than assuaging my feelings while giving me the chance to connect with a stranger who might need to hear a friendly voice.

Miguel has shared a few details about his life: He’s from Guatemala; his parents came to California to work when he was a baby and left him at home with an aunt. He finished technical school in Guatemala and wants to become an auto mechanic. But that’s not easy to do in his home country today. “I faced violence, extortions and death threats back in Guatemala,” he writes, and ultimately, “that is why I felt I had no option but to leave and ask the U.S. for protection.” 

Needless to say, the quest for protection has landed more migrants than ever in detention — and worse. At least 24 migrants have died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody since President Donald Trump took office. Children and teenagers in detention facilities have made allegations of deliberate mistreatment, including sexual assault, by border enforcement officials, and many have been held for weeks and even months in crowded cells with no access to soap or showers, sleeping on concrete floors in unwashed clothing. A recent report by the Office of the Inspector General describes 155 immigrant detainees occupying a room that was meant for only 35. ICE’s detention population is at an all-time high, with 54,000 people held in detention on any single day — up from 2016 averages by more than 50%.

Miguel has not told me about conditions at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. But last December, other detainees writing to people on the outside described medical neglect, racism and discrimination. In at least one instance, a detainee was forced to work extra shifts at the facility for $1 a day. 

Even if he’s not facing those problems at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, Miguel must know he’s now part of an ever-growing population of poor migrants from throughout the world who are now stuck inside this country’s immigration detention dragnet without access to due process.

I don’t know how old Miguel is, but the fact that he’s so eager to be reunited with his parents and start a career makes me think he’s in his early to mid-20s. His handwriting is filled with youthful, bubble-shaped letters. I hope we can meet in person someday. Even after he finally gets out, Detainee Allies told me, Miguel could still use my guidance or support  

“Thank you for understanding,” read his first short letter to me. “May God bless you.” 

When I replied, I asked him how he was doing. I questioned him about what he hopes to do once he’s out of detention and able to look for his parents. My heart was full, and I struggled to find the right words. In the end, all I could say was: “I wish you good health and strength.”

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!