by Carl A. BraxtonI recently visited a man in immigration detention at the Theo Lacy Facility in the city of Orange, CA. I am a student in Professor Katie Dingeman-Cerda’s Sociology class “Deportation Nation” at Cal State Los Angeles. My visit was set up by my professor’s colleague, Kristina Shull, Ph. D., who is involved with the non-profit Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).
That morning, I was apprehensive. I had never been to any type of incarceration facility in my life. As I parked my car and walked towards the facility, I made sure to be mindful of the simple instructions I had been given: be respectful and do not badger the man with a lot of questions. I love to ask questions but I promised myself to adhere to my charge which was simply, be an active listener. I was told to bring only what they allow inside; just my driver’s license, just a single car key, just the Post-It-sized paper with the name and booking number of the man I was to visit. I was also told to try to remember or write down the man’s “A” (alien) number. This would help CIVIC keep track of people in detention. I was set. I had everything. I was going to be the “perfect” visitor.
After a long wait, I was sitting in front of a man I had never met before in a steel and glass booth. We both picked up our phones and began a rather rocky conversation.
Neither of us really knew what to say to each other at first, but after a while he began to trust that I had no ulterior motives and that I was there for the sole purpose of listening to him. One thing that I realized was that, the more of my life that I shared with him, the more comfortable he was with sharing his experience. I was surprised at how well he spoke English and once we loosened up, our conversation seemed so natural and easy that I forgot I was speaking to an immigration “detainee.” It was as if we were just two guys sitting at a bus stop or at a party exchanging our views on life.
Before long, we were peppering each other with interesting questions and I forgot about the time. He must have forgotten, too, because just at the climax of an amazing story he was telling me about what he believed to be the origin of man and God, something that sounded like an elongated beep sounded through the phone. Our time had run out.
Nothing further could be said. Nothing further could be heard. For just a moment, we stared at each other with gaped mouths and our faces wore the same, incredulous, expression. A moment later we burst out laughing, simultaneously, because the cut off had been placed exactly when he was wrapping up his philosophy on God and the meaning of life. He motioned for me to come back another time and I motioned to him that I would.
Of course, I didn’t remember to get his “A” number, but I’ll never forget his name. He said his mother gave it to him after meeting the first white man to visit their village. True stories are, indeed, stranger than fiction.