The Current

How letters from migrants shed light on the 'intolerable' conditions inside U.S. detention centres

Appalled that migrants were being funnelled into a U.S. detention centre near their home, a group of San Diego residents starting writing letters to the migrants. Then the migrants wrote back, starting a conversation about the conditions they face, and what those ordinary folk on the outside could do to help.

The group Detainee Allies uses letters to record conditions and alleged abuses

A detainee at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, Calif. A group of volunteers started a letter-writing campaign to connect with the migrants and hear their stories. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
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As San Diego resident Kate Swanson reads letter after letter from migrants held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near her home, she hears stories of rotten food and unbearable conditions.

"Each day gets more intolerable," wrote one Guatemalan woman, who was being held at the facility, roughly 30 kilometres southeast of San Diego, Calif.

"They put the temperature intensely cold, our bones hurt … The food is not healthy, and an official once said it is dog food."

Swanson, a Canadian and associate professor at San Diego State University, said that her community was "outraged" to think of the migrants and refugees being funnelled into nearby Otay Mesa.

"The [centre holds] about 1,000 people who are migrants and asylum seekers, who were asking for help," she said.

"And we've thrown them in prison."

The gates of the Otay Mesa Detention Center, about 30 kilometres southwest of San Diego. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Last summer, determined "to do something," Swanson joined colleagues and neighbours to form Detainee Allies, a group that writes letters to detained migrants as a way to oppose the zero-tolerance border policy enacted by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.

When word spread among detainees that people outside were trying to help, replies from the migrants themselves began to outnumber the initial letters.

Through the power of [the U.S. Postal Service], we're able to get stories out, and we're able to get people's voices heard.- Kate Swanson, Detainee Allies

As momentum grew, this loose band of letter writers turned into an organization of more than 200 volunteers.

Now, they act as a central point of contact to send letters from the wider public to detainees.

Swanson calls it "a labour of love."

Kate Swanson, a Canadian and associate professor at San Diego State University, says her community was 'outraged' to see what was happening to migrants. (San Diego State University)

"The brilliance of this project is that through the power of [the U.S. Postal Service], we're able to get stories out, and we're able to get people's voices heard."

Swanson said that detainees often show their gratitude by sending them poetry, artwork and improvised gifts.

"We had people send us baby booties that have been made out of gum wrappers … [and] dream catchers that have been made out of dental floss."

The letter on the left was written by a migrant from the Congo. On the right is a letter from a detainee who was fleeing Afghanistan. (Submitted by Detainee Allies)
A group of San Diego residents wrote letters to migrants being held in U.S. detention camps. Then the migrants wrote back. 1:14

Flow of migrants continues

Announced in April 2018, the zero-tolerance border policy's stated aim was to prosecute anyone entering the U.S. illegally. It also pledged to remove children from adults trying to bring them across the border, effectively separating families.

After a global outcry, Trump pledged to end the separations, but uncertainty remains over the fate of those already apprehended.

The measures have not stemmed the flow of migrants — 66,450 migrants tried to enter illegally in February, an 11-year high.

One man's letter said that 'they treat us as if we are criminals, and yet our only crime is to flee our home countries.' (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Once detained, migrants can wait months, or even years, for their cases to be heard.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr struck down the right of some asylum seekers to ask an immigration judge for release on bond while awaiting trial.

The move increases the likelihood of indefinite detention, but the American Civil Liberties Union hopes to block the move.

Letters show abuses migrants suffer, says advocate

Detainee Allies has compiled abuses alleged by detainees in their letters, from infrequent and poor quality food, to being cut off from communicating with loved ones.

One man wrote to Swanson that "they treat us as if we are criminals, and yet our only crime is to flee our home countries because of the crime and lack of safety there."

The group also allows people to make donations to individuals — via a PayPal account — which are added to the detainee's phone and commissary accounts on a monthly basis.

Letters from migrants detained in Otay Mesa often had complaints about the quality of food, Swanson says. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The amount is up to the person offering it, but Swanson said even "modest" donations of a few dollars allow detainees to buy basic necessities, such as food and toothpaste.

This money also allows them to contact their family members back home.

"We get letters back from people saying: 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for this money. I haven't spoken to my family in six months because I haven't had any money to call them,'" Swanson said.

Detainees work for $1 a day

In Otay Mesa, migrants have the option of joining a work program, for a wage of $1 US a day.

The program is described as voluntary, but two former detainees claim they were forced to work under threat of punishment or solitary confinement.

In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2017, plaintiffs Sylvester Owino and Jonathan Gomez accuse the centre's operators, CoreCivic, of breaking labour laws by using detainees to "to clean, maintain and operate" the detention centre. A judge allowed the case to move forward in June last year.

Migrants who join the work program at Otay Mesa are paid $1 US a day. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, told The Current in an emailed statement that the facility is independently accredited by the American Correctional Association and is monitored on a daily basis by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

"Work programs at our ICE detention facilities are completely voluntary and operated in full compliance with ICE standards," the statement reads. "Detainees are subject to no disciplinary action whatsoever if they choose not to participate in the work program."

Pen pals donate small amounts of cash to migrants, Swanson says, which allows them to phone loved ones in their home countries. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Gilchrist added that the facility "provides a safe, appropriate environment for detainees," and that meals "meet or exceed nutritional standards, which are set by our government partners."

Swanson characterized those standards as "quite low," calling it "egregious" that "people are profiting off human suffering."

Critics don't 'consider our shared humanity'

Swanson realizes that not everyone will agree with what the group does.

"I think the line of thinking is that ... they have crossed the border illegally, they have broken the law, therefore they are criminals and they should be punished," she said, adding that people argue improved conditions would only encourage more migration.

"But I think that is a fairly weak argument, and I think it doesn't consider our shared humanity."

Once detained, migrants seeking asylum can wait months, or even years, for their cases to be heard. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The project was intended to be "a very small act of compassion and solidarity," she said.

"People who are coming to the U.S. ... are mothers, are fathers, are brothers, are sisters, are children. They're just like everybody else and they're doing whatever they can to improve their life circumstances."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. The Current's documentary Through Walls With Words was produced by Joan Webber.