by Barbara WoshinskyIt is a beautiful Saturday morning in March, one of those unexpected gifts sent to South Florida from the North: temperature in the 60’s, low humidity; a perfect day for walking on the beach. But instead of heading east to Biscayne Bay, we take an expressway north to the Tamiami Trail, a flat ribbon of urban sprawl bounded by a canal. We pass the monumental parking garage that marks the local state university; small shopping centers featuring McDonalds, Wendy’s, and check cashing shores; a Carvel shop; the Vegas barbershop. Crowded housing developments appear, their red roofs resembling flattened chinese hats. More prosperous homes flaunt their orange tiles to the powder-blue sky. At 137th street, an orange vendor riskily deploys his wares among the traffic.
The ground soon turns to gravel, supporting only invasive Australian pines and dying malaleuca trees. At the corner of Krome Avenue, we see a gas station, a truck wash and a tobacco shop. A giant sign points to the casino owned by the Miccosuki tribe; their Seminole ancestors were the only Native Americans the United States government failed to remove from the Southeast. Nothing indicates the way to our destination, the Krome immigrant detention center: you just have to know. A few hundred feet beyond the unmarked turnoff, a notice on a wire fence states “no weapons beyond this point.”
We stop at the guard house where a Hispanic officer checks our identification and the appointments roster. The waiting room is austere but decent: high ceilings, cushioned chairs, a few vending machines, lockers for the belongings we are not allowed to take in. I wait a long time. When my name is called, we walk down a long hall, then through another set of doors and down another hall to the visitation area. The visiting booths are prison-like, with telephones set into glass walls. My first conversation is with a young Dominican man — dark, thin, with an intense gaze. He pours out his story without waiting for my questions. Though he is wearing a red jumpsuit — supposedly reserved for violent offenders — he says he has committed no crime.
He is married to a US citizen and has applied for residency. The family moved to the affluent Florida community of Naples in order to bring up his daughter “someplace quiet.” Ironically, he has been arrested three times for “domestic violence” because the neighbors called the police when he and his wife were having a loud argument. In all cases, the charges were dropped “without him seeing a judge.” But while in prison, he missed an immigration interview and his application for a green card was denied. I am not sure whether he is being detained because of his arrests or because he lacks proper papers. It is clear to me, however, that his problems arose from culture clash, prejudice and lack of communication. An intelligent man, he graduated from high school in his country and speaks good English. He understands that the guards, mostly immigrants themselves, are working there to feed their familes, thus helping to guarantee that he cannot feed his. He bears them no grudge.
When I leave, I put my hand on the glass barrier, fingers spread. He matches it with his.My second conversation is with a handsome man in his 40’s from the English-speaking Caribbean. He served a prison sentence of ten years before being transferred to Krome some three weeks earlier. He does not speak about his crime and seems resigned to deportation, since he has no money for a lawyer. No one answers the pro bono attorney phone lines in the detention center (a common complaint; the legal service organizations that work with people in detention are overwhelmed.) While in prison, he appears to have adopted a facade of reserve and irony, with a flicker of anger showing through. Later, he will be transferred to another detention center and begin corresponding with me. He will write:
“When I got your letter and saw it was from you, you should have seen the smile you put on my face. . . . You wouldn’t know how it feels for someone to write you when they’re locked up. B, it’s a good feeling, To me, it’s better than money.”
We return home, emotionally exhausted. As I look around my cosy 50’s ranch house, warmed with orchids and Haitian paintings, I see before me the Krome “campus,” with its stark, one-story buildings, wire fences and bare earth. Why do I, a retired middle-class white woman, fond of classical music, art galleries, and imaginary visits to seventeenth century France, feel called to do this work? I could cite many reasons, including the connections between the prison and detention systems, the profits made through incarceration, and the fact that we keep more people locked up than any country in the world. But I prefer to give voice to those who are silenced, whose speech is more eloquent than mine.
We often lose sight of the people we have spoken with. Their stories have no clear beginnings and uncertain ends. Many are deported or disappear into the system; a few lucky ones are released, partly through the efforts of those more active than I. In any case, their words deserve to be heard.
I wrote this account three years ago. Since then, little has outwardly changed on Krome Avenue. the Miccosuki gaming sign is taller and more raucous; high speed bumps and concrete barriers slow the way to the detention center gate. Inside, the number of people detained has multiplied; men are often transferred to other centers to make room for those who are slated for immediate deportation. Recently I am seeing numbers of African asylum seekers. Many fear death if they are returned to their countries. Despite some political claims to the contrary, asylum seekers spend months or years waiting in detention, with an uncertain outcome.
These men, who suffered many hardships getting to our border, did not find the America they expected, nor expect the America they have found.
I can only alleviate the shame I feel for my country by trying to reach across the glass wall.
*Visitor volunteer with *Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees