By Bud Conlin
My journey into the dark, secret, and isolated world of immigrant prisons began in May of 2013 when an email appeared inviting me to a CIVIC (now Freedom for Immigrants) -led tour/visitation of something called the Krome Service Processing Center on the far outskirts of Miami, FL. I knew it was a detention center for immigrants, but nothing else.
Finding this isolated and unmarked prison on the edge of the middle of nowhere was the first challenge. It was clear ICE did not want to attract any attention. Out of sight out of mind was my first thought. After clearing the gate and the metal detectors, we were herded into a conference room where an officious well-dressed man and his ever-present younger aide spun a yarn about how well immigrants were treated while their immigration cases were processed. This tale did not synch with the sights, sounds, smells, and hard surfaces. On the tour itself the harshness was palpable. The facility was cold and smelled of bleach. It is a warehouse dealing in human beings as its commodity. No privacy was allowed, even for toileting and showers. Men were having their private parts grabbed by guards before and after every movement. (I later confirmed with imprisoned friends that this can happen over 25 times per day.)
After the perfunctory tour, we were allowed a precious few minutes to talk with a group of about 30 men who had signed up to visit with us. Their humanity and needs were overwhelming. They beamed when our tour leader stated, “We are community members and we don’t think any of you should be in immigration detention.” ICE apparently thought this was a provocative statement as we were shown the gate immediately following it.
This was a transforming experience for me — and the tag line #endisolation touched my heart. Several of us worked with Freedom for Immigrants to begin a visitation service at Krome. It took months, but the following February we began a visitation service at the prison under the name of Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees (FOMDD).
Initially, we were timid in our voice and action. Afraid that ICE would find a reason to throw us out, we mostly kept our heads down, visited, and spoke only among ourselves about what we heard and experienced. About a year into our service I recalled the words of a mentor many decades my junior telling us, “You will witness or become aware of a situation where silence is not an option.” A visitor was sexually harassed by an ICE supervisor intending to intimidate and silence her. At this point, as a group, we made the decision that in truth there is power. We filed a complaint and we never had to deal with that person again as he was removed from the facility. If they can do this to community visitors, what are they doing to family members and those who are confined?
When fear does not rule, power and truth can prevail. Fearlessness fosters opportunities. We filed 3 more complaints, and with each step, speaking out became more natural. Yes, our access is vital, but not at the expense of speaking the truth and calling out the abuses that surround us in immigrant prisons.
As an outgrowth of our newfound confidence, we have become part of a coalition named the Circle of Protection bearing witness, food, drinks, and support at an ICE check in center located about 30 miles away from the Krome prison in Miramar, FL. At the center immigrants face long lines, heat, no bathrooms, and all too often detention and deportation in what we call the “silent raids”. People go in and do not come out.
This past July the Circle of Protection decided to shine a light on the rogue actions of ICE in general and the silent raids in particular, with a large scale demonstration and street blockage in front of the check in center. The street was peacefully held for over 5 hours with 17 of us eventually arrested and held overnight in the main jail of Broward County, FL. All charges were eventually dropped. On our next opportunity to visit our friends in Krome, we learned that those visitors who had protested at Miramar had been banned in retaliation and would no longer be allowed to provide humanitarian services at the facility. This situation provides us with another opportunity to call attention to the human rights violations committed by ICE in our names.
From this adversity our Shine a Light campaign was born. We are now part of a new coalition led by Freedom for Immigrants demanding that ICE acknowledge that community members do not lose their right to protected speech as the price to enter an immigrant prison. Speaking the truth to power and forming coalitions with those with big shoulders is always the right thing to do when silence is not an option.