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These Lives Matter: “Detainee Not Found”

Port Isabel Detention Center

Guestblogger:Claudia Valenzuela, Associate Director of Litigation for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center

This post is the second in a new series titled “These Lives Matter,” in which NIJC staff, clients, and volunteers will share their unique perspectives on immigration stories that do not always make the news.

I began my legal career working with Guatemalan asylum seekers looking to become lawful permanent residents of the United States. In working with this community, I heard stories time and again about loved ones who had been disappeared and saw firsthand how having a husband, son, or daughter disappeared can create a special kind of guilt, fear and grief. Working with detained immigrants many years later, I cannot help but notice parallels between individuals who were purposely disappeared in 1980s Guatemala and individuals who disappear when taken into ICE custody – mainly in the ways that family members left behind are affected by not knowing the immediate fate of their loved ones.

When an individual is detained by ICE, he or she can in fact be disappeared. It can take family members days, or in some cases weeks or even months, to locate loved ones arrested by ICE. Sometimes, a family does not learn of a loved one’s whereabouts until that person calls home after they are deported.

Locating a loved one relatively quickly does not necessarily lessen the trauma of witnessing the arrest in the first place. Take the case of Viviana and Martin*—mother and son. ICE officers came to their home and misled Viviana into believing that they were local police officers who only wanted to talk to Martin. They convinced Viviana to call her son home. She was devastated after witnessing the officers take her son into custody without further explanation. Martin—who had just turned 18,had diagnosed learning disabilities, had no previous encounters with the immigration authorities, and had engaged in no wrongdoing—was taken away, surrounded by armed men, while Viviana watched helplessly. The hours following Martin’s arrest were harrowing. Viviana spent that night calling every police station in town, only to be told there was no one by her son’s name in custody. Throughout the ordeal, Viviana was overcome with grief at the thought that she had turned in her own son.

There are countless stories like Viviana and Martin’s—sometimes it’s mothers, sometimes fathers, sons or daughters, taken away while loved ones, including children, stand by helplessly. In the aftermath, there usually are frantic calls to numbers that lead nowhere. It takes luck to reach an ICE officer who will answer any questions. The ICE Online Detainee Locator System—a public relations initiative ICE instituted following a series of wide-scale raids that resulted in mass “disappearances” —is hit or miss, more often a miss. If loved ones can get online—and most of the family members we encounter every day do not have access to the internet—they must either have the person’s “alien number” or the exact spelling of their name, date of birth and country of nationality. Then they must pass a “captcha” security check by typing in a word that appears in a box. Even lawyers have a difficult time getting the system to work. Despite having the necessary, accurate information, we still frequently get the message “detainee not found” if it is less than 24 hours since the arrest. It also takes the system a while to be updated following a transfer to a new detention center. This delay makes the first 24 hours or so following a person’s arrest all the more distressing for loved ones who realize a family member has gone missing.

Martin eventually reached his mother, after a collect call finally made it through to Viviana. He was later released from ICE custody after posting a bond. But months later, Viviana lives with the fear and guilt of those critical hours after Martin was taken away, when she believed her son to be missing and felt that she was responsible.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Picture Courtesy of http://www.texasobserver.org

#ImHere for Immigrant Women. Are You?

For millions of immigrants, here — the U.S. — is home. But for many immigrant women, home is not safe. The last few years have brought a steady decline in the human rights of all immigrants to the United States. Our broken immigration system and cruel anti-immigrant laws have had particular impact on immigrant women and the families they’re raising. Many immigrant women are sole breadwinners — yet they earn 13 percent less than their male counterparts and 14 percent less than female U.S. citizens.

Many families have already been separated by deportation or indefinite detention, often without due process. Other parents and children — especially in states where police demand the papers of anyone inviting “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented — live in fear of these threats, rarely leaving home at all. These laws also force women to choose between the threat of an abusive husband and the threat of deportation if they call the police. They send pregnant mothers to give birth in shackles with federal agents by their side. They trap women and LGBTQ people in immigrant detention centers under the constant threat of physical and sexual abuse. They drive parents to give power of attorney over their children to friends, neighbors and employers because the threat of deportation and indefinite detention is just too real. In fact, in the first six months of 2011, the U.S. deported more than 46,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children.

Does this feel wrong to you?

Do you believe in human rights for all?

Do you believe you can make a difference?

If so, let us know you’re here for, in support of, and in solidarity with, immigrant women.

Here are 3 quick things you can do:

1. UPLOAD A PHOTO of yourself on the #ImHere wall and join the growing number of women, men and young people in the U.S. and beyond who believe in human rights for all women. Check out the wall here: http://ow.ly/bKlar. First, print or write out a sign saying #ImHere. Second, take your picture holding up the sign. Third, upload the photo here: http://imherebreakthrough.tumblr.com/submit. (NOTE: You don’t need to have an account to upload.)

2. Post this on your Facebook page: Here’s a great way to show solidarity with immigrant women. Upload your photo onto your own, or your organization’s Facebook page and tag @Breakthrough.

 3. Tweet this out: #ImHere to support the rights of immigrant women. Are you? http://ow.ly/bKlar #waronwomen @breakthrough

Other ways to submit:

EMAIL: Send your photo to us at imhere@breakthrough.tv. Include your first NAME, CITY of residence, and TWITTER handle (if you have one) so we can follow you.

INSTAGRAM: Tag your photo #ImHere and share to Twitter and Facebook.

FACEBOOK: Post your photo to your timeline and tag our Breakthrough page. We’ll do the rest!

Thanks so much. Together we can build an America where all women, and their families, are safe in their homes and limitless in their dreams.