I spent Christmas in a Texas jail. I sat with circles of women and little kids, and the women looked at me intently, listening carefully for any information I could give them about their own lives. I told them they'd have to tell a stranger about the worst things in their lives, and they'd have to "pass" this conversation or they'd be sent back to those horrible things. I told them we had lawyers here for them who could help them, for free, to prepare.
I observed a lawyer preparing a mom for her interview with a stranger. The interview is a step on the way to the official immigration status of asylum. We sat in a detention center in South Texas, in a gray room with a desk and no windows, and the mother told us of murders, threats to her family, and attacks on her husband that left over a dozen stitches in his head. Her two kids were there. Her son has big eyes and fat cheeks, and touched her face sweetly, waited patiently, and looked around the empty room as she spoke. I observed because I thought I'd help translate next time, but I can't. My heart is too soft, and I left the jail and went to a motel to weep and shower.
The experience reminded me of my times of deep depression, when what I needed was sensuality, a warm embrace, days of sunlight and explorations of my body's strength and power, and someone who would allow me to ease into talking about pain. What I got instead were trips to depressingly bland offices, and requests to sit at a desk and talk abstractly about my pain, which only multiplied and shot aches and spasms into my body. I've learned a lot since then about happiness, joy, and recovery, but for me, it's never come in a gray office with a desk and no windows.
After I told the women about their asylum cases and what we could offer, we sat around a table and they told me some of their stories—just the parts after they crossed the border into this country. I've talked with hundreds of women who have spent time with their families in the hielera, or icebox, where immigration officials took them. They almost all say that it's fucking freezing, and everyone sleeps on the floor, including the floor of the bathroom, or they sleep standing up, if they sleep at all. There's no shower, no medical attention, and rarely soap to wash their hands. They're given a frozen piece of white bread with a slice of ham once or twice a day, and often pushed and yelled at by English-speaking government officials. Sometimes the officials separate the parents from their kids. They stay there for a few days—it can be hard for them to remember how long because the lights are always on and they can't see outside.
I encourage them to write these things down if they choose, or I write for them. I ask their permission to share their stories with the public and the government, to try to change the system. Sometimes I feel glimmers of hope as they speak, ask one another questions, try to comfort each another, and patiently encourage the others to allow us to share their stories. For just a moment sometimes, it seems possible that we have what we need to care for one another.
I've been fortunate to participate in a few formal programs that encouraged friendship and healing: as a teenager it was with an organization that united suburban and inner-city kids to garden together and become friends in that racially segregated place where I was raised. In college I spent a few weeks with Israeli, Palestinian and American students, swimming in a lake, studying, and becoming friends. A few years ago, alongside some deep moral reservations, I participated in a free international program designed to unite jews around the world to fall in love with one another and with a racially exclusive nation-state. (I embraced the first kind of love but not the second.) We hiked and learned, and we became friends.
There were certainly conflicts, we were soothed by time together and by time in nature, by a moment that suggested that it's easy to live together.
What if we offered something like that for new immigrants to America, particularly refugees and asylum seekers?
In one of the best-case scenarios for refugees in America, a volunteer welcomes them by shuttling the whole family to several appointments with vague-sounding departments, like Social Security, to sit and wait hours and hours to sign confusing paperwork, and probably learn that the government has lost their file and they have to do it again next week.
Then there are the scenarios like those of the asylum seekers I spoke to in jail. I had to tell them that if they passed their interview they'd probably have two choices: They could wear an electronic shackle on their ankle, for perhaps many months, that allows the government to call them and request an appointment anytime. Or they could choose to pay thousands of dollars in bond, wait in jail a little longer, and then leave. Either way they'd have many more appointments before they knew whether they could stay in this country, and six months before they could even request permission to work. Many, probably most of them, won't win their cases, and they'll be sent back to the worst parts of their lives, and maybe to the end of their lives.
Is there something we want new immigrants to know about America? If so, could we tell it to them over a warm cup of tea? Could we introduce them to each other, offer friendships that transcend national origins and destination cities in the U.S.? Could we suggest that there is suffering in this world, but also healing, and could we give them just a moment when they arrive to say, after all they've been through, welcome, and we love you?
Sarah Michelson recently volunteered with the CARA Pro-Bono Project in a family detention center in Dilley, Texas. She lives in Tucson, where she was a resident volunteer at Casa Alitas, a migrant shelter, and currently teaches English to refugees at Pima College. She is the granddaughter of Jewish refugees.