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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

A story a day should keep enforcement at bay

Never underestimate the power of storytelling. No matter what the cause, it’s always the individual stories that resonate deeply changing our most deeply held notions. And it’s these personal stories that shed light on how broken the immigration system really is, giving us deep insights into the immigrant experience.

Vozmob or “Mobile Voices” is an open-source platform that gives immigrant day laborers in L.A. access to the digital sphere by letting them use cellphones and MMS technology to create photographic, narrative slide-shows as a way to share stories about their lives and communities. In “Working Hands,” a seamstress uses photographs to illustrate the painstakingly detailed and skillful work done by immigrant workers across Los Angeles. The images tell the story of personal dignity and pride in the work done by hundreds of people across the nation.

Vozmob harnesses the power of personal stories to change the way immigrant communities are perceived. In an early Vozmob workshop, a Google search for the phrase “day laborer” revealed a disturbing stereotype, that many crimes are committed by illegal aliens who work as day laborers. By allowing immigrant workers to share their lives, both within their community and outside, the project launched by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California is changing these false perceptions.

The power of storytelling has been embraced as dramatically by the DREAM Act movement, a movement led by undocumented youth to claim their right to live freely. A moving narrative by Matias Ramos, an immigrant rights advocate since high school describes what he went through while facing deportation. An excerpt from Chapter 1, “The Deported”-

Rush hour traffic in Downtown Minneapolis, and it’s snowing again. I look out the blurry window and can barely see the faces of the people in the van next to ours. I know for a fact, however, that nobody in that packed freeway can see me or any of the other six illegal immigrants on our way to be deported from the United States. The two ICE agents sitting in the front live in a different world, their radio muting any sounds from us: the illegals in the back. An unmarked van, owned by the Department of Homeland Security, is taking us to a county jail in Albert Lea, Minnesota, near the border with Iowa. There, we will wait for our deportation date when the paperwork clears….I try to get my mind somewhere else by going back to the church songs we sang as kids…

In Chapter 2, “We don’t have papers,”, Matias candidly writes about his lack of papers, and his involvement with the DREAM Act movement-

Way before being trapped in a van in Minneapolis, and because my papers expired, I started working for immigration reform in the United States. I work on immigration because I don’t have papers. There are a lot of people like me. They should really be doing something else, but they work on immigration. They have degrees in engineering, political science, and education. They have acting careers and business plans on hold – while they work on immigration…I did not go back to Argentina in 2008 because we had just helped Obama win and because we were going to work hard to pass the DREAM Act in the first 100 days.  The DREAM Act is an old but little-known proposal to start reforming immigration like you would start rescuing a sinking ship: with the kids…

Some days it is hard to be optimistic. But it’s stories like these, from the hundreds of day laborers whose work goes unnoticed on a daily basis and brave activists like Matias, that power the movement. So don’t stop reading, watching, learning, sharing and telling stories. And whatever you do, don’t stop dreaming.

Photo courtesy of