Immigration Detention: The Agony in Haunting Pictures

“But when a people see their humanity denied, art is a defense of that humanity.”

Héctor Tobar, New York Times

I was moved by the New York Times Op-Ed written by Héctor Tobar, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine about the power of art to prompt seismic cultural shifts.

And significant policy changes are needed to tackle the unfair treatment received by asylum seekers and immigrants. Upon entry into our country, asylum seekers are shackled, put in prison jumpsuits and loaded onto buses. Immigrants living in the U.S. are ambushed by ICE officers at their children’s schools, their places of employment and the homes where they live.

Once in custody, they are taken to for-profit detention centers and county jails where they are  held indefinitely, waiting for their story to come before a judge. Yes, there are financial incentives to put people in detention. There is even a law mandating that 34,000 immigration detention beds be maintained.  Like the hotel business, you have to fill the beds to make a profit. 

A white van backing into the detention center
The Van Bringing Detainees to the Detention Center

So with the hopes of helping to drive change in our immigration policies,  I am profiling the artwork by detainees printed on a set of cards created by First Friends. First Friends is an organization that promotes compassion and hope for detainees and asylum seekers through volunteer visitation, resettlement assistance and advocacy. Each picture is accompanied by a short explanation of the artist’s intent and situation contained on the back of the card.

Redefining Motherhood

“After being separated from her 8-month old son, Juliet Horton expressed herself as a mother through her art. She helped other women express their motherhood by drawing them with their estranged children. Her work depicts the need for detainees to re-define themselves as mothers in a system that disconnects them from their families.”

Refocusing on the Person

“Detainees utilize art to define themselves not as prisoners, but through the lens of their families, religions, cultures, and interests. Any available material may be used to create. In this case, paper towels were woven to form a canvas for a message. This is an example of the overwhelming need detainees have to create art and the obstacles they overcome to do so.

Art as an Outlet for Opposition

“How does one speak up in a system that is designed to silence you? Many detainees found an outlet for their opposition against the political system through their artistic expression.”

Capturing the Isolation

“The drawing of a young man detained at Hudson County Jail, done by a fellow detainee portrays his isolation and sadness. The young man depicted, a member of the Karen people, has been released, has a job, apartment, and car and is building new relationships. Sadly, the artist was deported.”

Ingenuity of Artists

“This piece was sent to First Friends by Abdul, a detainee who fled his home country of Pakistan. By incorporating both the American and Pakistani flag, Abdul intertwines both his Pakistani past and his hope for freedom in America. With no art supplies available, Abdul used Jell-O food coloring and his own bed sheet to create this piece He was later deported to Pakistan.”

Feeling Broken

“Juliet Horton writes: ‘This is how I feel. I draw lost souls to show that life is unfair. I feel so broken. Everything I love has been taken away. I don’t even know why I exist.”

Turning Pain into Hope

“’My first friends’ is a homemade card with tissue paper accents. It includes the story of ‘The Sad and Imprisoned Butterfly.’

Translation from the story: ‘There’s a reason for those things that are hardest to accept. The butterfly was once a caterpillar before she could fly. And the fire that burns you today will set you free tomorrow. It will be the brightest gem in your skies.

There’s a reason for everything and if you look back at the pain in the past you’ll be able to see that in the end this turned into beautiful flowers and those that are most delicate and bring you the most joy are the ones that were watered by your tears.’”

Flagging the Morally Corrupt System

“How do detainees safely voice their opposition against inhumane treatment while fighting for political asylum? ‘Dignity for Immigrants’ was created by an asylum seeker from India who was later deported.

His art became a means to call out the morally wrong system that imprisoned him and ignite a call for dignity and justice for immigrants. The many different religious and cultural symbols around the Statue of Liberty represent the need for the United States to be a place of diversity and inclusion.”

The detainee art is a powerful reminder of the doggedness of the human spirit in the face of adversity. As Tobar reminds us, “When we feel powerless to stop the hatred and injustice directed at our people, we should remember art’s potential to enlighten the uninformed and to slowly eat away at prejudice.”

If you would like to purchase the cards, please contact the First Friends office.

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