by Nilson Barahona Marriaga, currently detained at Stewart Detention Center; reposted with permission from Southern Poverty Law Center

I came to the United States from Honduras when I was 18 years old. I have lived here more than 20 years. My time in this country has left me with little doubt that my personality and character have been shaped by American society and culture over the past two decades. My beautiful wife, son, siblings and father are all U.S. citizens.

"I have grown to become American over time, as many migrants have, even without a title or certificate that gives us right of citizenship."

It is my personal belief that to be American means more than just having citizenship. I have grown to become American over time, as many migrants have, even without a title or certificate that gives us right of citizenship. I am affected –  for better or for worse – by all the things that this great nation goes through. Her victories fill me with happiness and pride. Her defeats fill me with sadness and dismay.    

Yet it troubles me deeply that the government of this country allows itself to be represented by entities who act on its behalf without appropriate seriousness, accountability and integrity. In particular, I am referring to the way that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract with private companies to detain, feed and provide medical care to detained migrants, like myself.  

I have had the great displeasure over the last 11 months of experiencing what detained migrants have long had to endure while I have been in the custody of Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, and Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin, Georgia, where I am currently detained.  

I want to believe that the U.S. government seeks to operate with integrity.

But I have witnessed that LaSalle Corrections and CoreCivic, Inc. – the for-profit, mass incarceration entities that manage these two detention centers – completely ignore the fact that they represent the federal government, and by extension, this nation. It pains me that the U.S. government completely disregards the way they are represented by their contractors, LaSalle and CoreCivic.

While in ICE custody, I have observed the way in which we, detained migrants, are treated by these agencies – in inhumane, degrading and humiliating ways that no one deserves.  

"They use slurs and curse words in nearly every sentence that comes out of their mouths."

We are commanded to obey and respect higher ranking officers, such as lieutenants, sergeants and captains. But many of them, unfortunately, are people who lack training or appropriate vocabulary. They use slurs and curse words in nearly every sentence that comes out of their mouths. When the pandemic arrived in this country, for months, guards wouldn’t wear masks, putting us and themselves at risk.

It is obvious that these contractors don’t operate under the sort of high standards we would expect of people working in detention centers as representatives of their employers, and ultimately, the federal government.  

As a basic, fundamental example of the way these facilities are mismanaged, they do not allow for recommendations made by their own medical departments to be carried out to protect the health of detained migrants.

I have diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol that require a healthy, balanced diet to avoid unnecessary risks of medical complications. Despite medical staff requests for appropriate meals for me, the diet we are given consists mostly of bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes – high-carb foods that make me unhealthy, and negatively impact the health of other detained migrants who are living with chronic illnesses. These institutions are responsible for our health; after all, we are detained, and we have no freedom to choose what we eat.

It has also become increasingly clear to me that these detention centers see us – migrants – as a source of profit, and little more.

"Two men have already died from the virus here at Stewart."

I write this amid a pandemic that only makes the failures I’ve described worse. In each of the units where I’ve been held, people have become sick with COVID-19. Two men have already died from the virus here at Stewart.

As more of us fall ill, we require more medicine and medical care. Since the federal government is the entity that pays for our care, the very act of our detention and treatment has become a fountain of income for these for-profit detention centers. If there were adequate accountability and oversight, not only could we avoid long-term medical complications, but we would also avoid having to funnel so many federal funds to our detention.    

But despite my prolonged detention, the truth is that I still have love for this country. And so it pains me to hear the comments made by my fellow detainees, who state that being in ICE custody is the worst experience they have ever survived.    

But I understand them perfectly.

"I know we can make our dreams come true in the United States if we work hard."

It pains me because I know the good of this country and the opportunities that exist to improve our lives. I know we can make our dreams come true in the United States if we work hard. We have bright futures here if we use our gifts and talents for the good of our communities.

I understand my comrades because these institutions, seemingly without any ethical standards, are perverting our government.

"Together, we are left speechless in our dismay."

At the end of the day, we are detained by ICE, under their custody and responsibility. I know that my wife, siblings, father and countless other U.S. citizens like them see how these for-profit, mass incarceration systems represent the U.S. government the way I do. Together, we are left speechless in our dismay.  

The United States of America is a great country that has given us many opportunities to help, support and bless our families, communities and countries. It is a shame that for many, their last experience in this land of the free will be one of bitter disappointment.