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A Gray Welcome for the Most Vulnerable

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Remember your elementary school gymnasium? It was probably a cinder-block building painted a drab shade of grey or beige. There were no windows.

Now consider if this were the most welcoming place you could go in your day. That is what the visitation room for immigrant detainees looks like in Newark, New Jersey. There’s nothing plush or happy about it. The monotone plastic chairs and tables set up in Elizabeth Detention Center do not offer comfort. The glass partitions jutting into the visitation room where attorneys can talk with clients are more reminiscent of interrogation rooms than a place of confidence. The fluorescent lights look anything but natural.

To be honest, I was very guarded going into Elizabeth. After giving my social security number and license, going through a metal detector, sending my shoes through a scanner, and standing in a little compartment as one automated door closed behind me before the one in front could open, I felt like there must be good reason to be afraid.

But you should know there are people inside Elizabeth. Obviously, right? Perhaps; yet I find that we placate our sense of guilt at the arbitrary nature of immigrant incarceration by tucking detention centers into remote locations and warehouse districts where no one goes. We can forget that people with families sit waiting there.

Immigrant detainees’ fears are real. Their stories are moving. I spoke with several detainees on a visit to Elizabeth. One man I spoke to faced violence at home in southern Mexico as a teen. After several family members were murdered—for a reason the family could not explain—his family separated in desperate flight. He faced continued threats in Mexico and crossed into the United States. He has lived here for decades, holds a steady job, and has built a family. He never told his wife about this dark chapter of his past. He cannot find the words. Now that he faces removal proceedings, he wonders whether he should share the danger he may face if deported.

Another woman was a mother of three. Her oldest son is coming close to graduating middle school near the top of his class. He has been recruited to attend a private high school. Her middle son is a good student as well. Her youngest son has faced a number of health complications since birth. His muscles have not developed properly. His gums are weak so he has lost several teeth. If his stomach does not properly digest meals, he must go to the hospital for surgery. As a mother, she wants the best for her kids but knows she cannot leave her US citizen children here while she is in Mexico. Bringing them to Mexico does not seem like an option either. She does not want to take her oldest son away from his opportunity to excel academically or take her youngest son to a place where she cannot afford to provide him proper medical care. Yet she now faces deportation after ICE apprehended her at home for a deportation notice sent in 1997 to a different address from where she lived. She and her husband have yet to decide whether to take voluntary departure or fight an expensive case they may not win.

I was struck by my visit to Elizabeth both because of the stories I heard and because it is supposed to be the premier immigration detention center. The recent improvements ICE agreed to are crucial and noteworthy. Family visits allow direct contact. There are a few plants in the facility. One wall sported a mural. There’s even an “outdoor recreation area”—though it has a grate over the top. But the facilities would be unbearable for me. The assumption that arbitrary detention is at any level necessary for most of the people I spoke with does not bode well with my conscience.

If we assume detainees are bad people because of the conditions of their detention, our logic is fundamentally flawed. Just because someone is in a jail-like setting (or in a jail itself) does not mean they are a criminal, a danger to the community. The authority to detain a person for immigrant reasons is only administrative, not penal. Oftentimes we forget that many immigrant detainees are being held for civil violations like overstaying a visa and making an illegal U-turn. I’ve done the latter myself a time or two. But my sense of justice certainly conflicts with the assumption that I should be uprooted from my life for such a minor offense. The same holds true for immigrant detainees who are held for an offense that should be remedied with alternatives to detention that have proven effective, especially given that the government cannot articulate the need to deprive someone of liberty. Penal incarceration of non-citizens is seldom necessary. We cannot forget that “these people”—our neighbors—are affected in a very real way. No human deserves this treatment.


Justin Remer-Thamert is an Associate at Access to Justice, LIRS’s unit that promotes access to the justice system, immigration benefits, and legal protection to immigrants and refugees, with particular attention to the most vulnerable, such as asylum seekers, torture survivors and those in immigration detention.

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