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

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