Originally Published in The New York Times.
By Liz Robbins
Feb. 7, 2019
Achiri Nelson Geh, a young activist deeply involved in the independence movement in southern Cameroon, knew he had to flee: Police officers had killed his brother, and they were looking for him. Making his way by plane, boat, bus and foot to Mexico, he surrendered to United States authorities at the border in the hope of winning asylum.
But his new life wasn’t what he expected. He has spent the 21 months since then inside three federal immigration detention centers, imprisoned until he can collect $50,000 for a bond, while his asylum case winds through the appeals court.
One day this past summer, though, a lifeline arrived: Not $50,000, but a letter from Anne-Marie Debbané, a professor of geography at San Diego State University, near the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where he was housed for the first 20 months. “I am terribly sorry for what you are going through both in Cameroon and here,” she wrote. “I applaud you for your bravery, courage and determination in standing up for justice and freedom.”
Mr. Geh, now 29, was elated to hear from someone, even someone he had never met. “Thank you for your letters,” he wrote. “It gives me courage.”
Here began an old-fashioned correspondence that bloomed into a friendship, part of an unusual epistolary campaign initiated by San Diego State professors and others in suburban San Diego. Last week, the university library made public the digital archive of hundreds of letters from detainees, throwing open a window into the fragile lives of migrants from more than 20 countries living, some of them for years, inside a nondescript private prison.
The debate over how to receive immigrants in a country that both depends on their labor and criminalizes them as intruders has emerged as the signature flash point of the Trump administration, which has swept a growing number of undocumented immigrants like Mr. Geh into detention at places like Otay Mesa and vowed to secure the border against future illegal crossings.
But as Washington battles over the president’s plan for a border wall and how to handle an influx of new migrant families arriving from Central America, the letters exchanged in San Diego have made an international political drama intensely personal.
“In the U.S. our tendency is to really dehumanize migrants,” said Kate Swanson, another geography professor at San Diego State. “We put them in these concrete boxes. This helps them become visible.”
Detainees began writing letters, many using stubby golf pencils purchased for 6 cents from the commissary. They pleaded for help while telling their stories of rape, murder and torture in their home countries, and of separation from their children at the border. Volunteers responded with shock and empathy, sending Christmas cards, poems, pictures and updates about their own families. They also sent small amounts of money to the detainees’ accounts for purchases of such things as extra food and drinks, toothbrushes and sneakers.
For those awaiting imminent deportation, “all we could offer was commissary and moral support in the meantime — like the cup of coffee on the deck of a big ship that’s going to sink,” said Joanna Brooks, an associate vice president at the university who initiated the campaign, which has grown to 200 volunteers.
Otay Mesa, operated by a private prison corporation under a contract with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, opened in its current building southeast of San Diego in 2015. Of the 930 immigrants in ICE custody as of this week, 796 are men.
But fewer than half of the detainees have criminal convictions, according to the latest records kept by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University. Most are simply awaiting the outcome of deportation or asylum proceedings. Of those with criminal records, drunken driving and illegal entry into the country are the most common offenses, the analysis shows.
“We are not who President Trump thinks we are,” wrote Luis, a 19-year-old gay man from El Salvador. “What I want is to create conscience of who we are as migrants. We are not a danger to society.”
The letters, written in halting English and flowing Spanish, told stories of how people had wound up in a place so far from home. Mostly, they expressed longing to know that someone knew they were there.
“Whenever you reply my letters, it is a light for me in the darkness,” said an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo who goes by the initial K in the archive. “It is true it makes me cry because your letter showed care and love as a human.”
As much as the communication has helped ease the loneliness for the detainees, it has deeply affected the lives of the letter writers as well. For Professor Debbané, whose academic specialty is post-apartheid South Africa, the letters to Mr. Geh led to in-person visits and prison calls; they talked about colonialism in Africa, and shared books and articles.The university library’s digital archive of hundreds of letters from detainees has been made public.CreditSandy Huffaker for The New York Times
“We are there for one another, and I believe that we appeared in each other’s lives at just the right moment,” she said of Mr. Geh, who was taken out of Otay Mesa by ICE on his 29th birthday and is now at a detention center in Alabama.
“I have all of her letters with me,” he said in an interview. “I read them every day.”
The letter-writing project began when the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant parents from their children at the border was roiling the country last summer. Professor Brooks gathered similarly outraged friends and colleagues at her house; together, they found the names and alien registration numbers for 30 detainees at Otay Mesa who had been part of a migrant caravan held up at the border in Tijuana. The volunteers rented a post office box for the detainees’ responses.
When the first batch of 16 handwritten letters came back July 11, Jennifer Gonzalez, a lawyer in the group, said: “We were all sharing bits and pieces and names and stories. I had this intense sense that each one of those letters didn’t just represent a real person, but they represented a family who missed this person, their community, down to their ancestors.”
Within six weeks, the group had a system in place for writing letters daily and depositing funds into detainees’ commissary accounts. The group estimates it has spent more than $10,000 since July.
“There are 140 of us who have organized to share our commissary,” wrote Ulises, who came to the United States to seek protection from the abuse he suffered as a gay man in Honduras. “We are people from different countries, India, China, Pakistan, Cuba, Jamaica, Vietnam, etc. There are many different languages and sometimes we have to communicate by signals because we don’t speak the same language, but that does not prevent us from providing moral support to each other.”
Terrie Vorono, a volunteer in the group, thanked him for his letter and offered a connection: As the mother of a gay son, she is an advocate for gay rights. “We know that our children are never 100 percent safe even in the United States,” she wrote to him.
The letter writers have not found universal support. Rosanna Benink, who has hosted volunteers at her house every Monday, said one of her friends wondered why she bothered.
“She said to me, ‘Well, they shouldn’t be here in the first place, so what did they expect?’” Ms. Benink said. She said she tried to explain that these were “true asylum seekers,” but ran into more apathy. “You get that reaction and it blows me away,” she said.
The volunteers asked the detainees to describe their living conditions at the prison, and the letters revealed common complaints: spoiled food, itchy soap, harsh treatment, lack of access to legal counsel. An advocacy group formed by the letter writers, Detainee Allies, published a separate report based on the findings from the letters.
“Things here become more and more unbearable,” a 50-year-old woman from Guatemala wrote on Dec. 3. “They make the temperature intensely cold, our bones hurt. The meal schedule is irregular and the food is not healthy. An officer said that it was food for dogs.”
The detainee named Luis, who had come via the migrant caravan and has since been granted asylum, wrote that for personal hygiene, “we are only given soap and shampoo, but the soap and shampoo they give us makes us itch.” To avoid it, he said, detainees must buy a better brand from the commissary.
Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic, the company that operates Otay Mesa, said officials at the detention center had been responsive to the needs of detainees, correcting problems when they came to light. She said facility managers monitored the temperatures and the food. “Meals in CoreCivic facilities meet or exceed nutritional standards, which are set by our government partners,” she said.
As the months have passed, some of the detainees have left — either winning the right to live in the United States or, more often, sent back to their home countries.
Professor Swanson has found herself thinking often about one of the men she wrote to, Juan, who had come to the United States to avoid death threats from MS-13 gang members in Honduras.
She had written to him about her son and husband, and sent Honduran soccer scores. But he was deported after three months, and the letters stopped. Professor Swanson said she was sure he was dead.
But it wasn’t so. Reached in Honduras last week, Juan said he was safe and planning to leave again for Mexico to find work; he wouldn’t try to return to the United States, but he did have one lasting memory from the experience: Professor Swanson’s letters.
“I felt like I had family,” he said.