Field Site Notes: Detainee Visits with Mariposas Sin Fronteras

This semester, I’ve been interning with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, an immigrant-run collective that advocates for LGBTQ immigrants, both in and outside of detention. The Mariposas themselves are primarily LGBTQ immigrants, many of whom have been detained previously, and all of whom are tackling injustice in Arizona from a whole myriad of angles. One approach has been working with people currently in detention, and I’ve been tagging along this semester, visiting one-on-one with detainees in Eloy and Florence, Arizona.

I’ve now visited the Eloy and Florence detention centers a total of five times. Each time, I am buzzed through the first door, then walk through a sort of chain-linked tunnel. Only after the first door closes can I be buzzed in through the second, and this always reminds me of the aviary section of the zoo. I pass through a door, a metal detector, and another set of double doors. By the time I arrive to the rubberized couches of the visitation room, at least an hour after arriving, I am always a bundle of nerves, apologizing for my Spanish. I feel worried the person I am visiting will not want a stranger probing at them, or worse, a student, especially one of my privilege, who cannot pretend to comprehend the magnitude of their experiences.

Xochitl was the first person I met in detention, early on in the semester. I was nervous about making small talk, about fumbling to find common ground, but Xochitl was patient and in good spirits. She’s only four months older than me, and has spent over seven months in Eloy. She wears her hair in a thin braid, the blonde highlights growing out, and we didn’t have much of a problem talking for an hour, leaning towards each other, sharing stories and plans. Xochitl is a Mexican woman seeking asylum for being lesbian, and she is hoping to get her younger sister out of CPS custody in Phoenix and care for her. We hugged goodbye tightly after that first visit, promising to keep in touch, saying good luck, and que todo vaya bien.

Each time I visit someone in detention, I promise to write, say goodbye with a firmer hug than that of our initial greeting, whisper suerte. I am buzzed out of four doors and two gates, passed the metal detector and sometimes a drug-sniffing dog, passed a room of families with restless toddlers waiting to see their parents. I pass the sign on the wall of Corrections Corporation of America, which tells me the share price of the company, in case I want to invest in the exploitative and white supremacist company that profits off the caging of immigrants. Each time, I leave aching. It is a painful thing to read about mass detention, to know theoretically about the prison industrial complex, but it is much harder to see things first hand, to speak with detainees, and to then turn on your heel and reenter your own life, a life of the outside.

I’ll be honest with you, writing this blog post has felt challenging. I want to capture the corporal sensation of entrapment one feels upon entering a detention center without sensationalizing the experience, or pretending my perspective is the valuable component of these interactions, when I am not the one facing xenophobic and racist laws, or a dim hope at a court case that will likely end in deportation. I don’t want to be voyeuristic, or exploit the generous storytelling of the people I’ve met inside. It is hard to capture the flood of relief I experience when exiting the facilities, and the inextricable collapsing I feel at leaving people behind. Suddenly, the world feels smaller and worse.

Xochitl and I mail cards back and forth. She sends me long letters with social and legal updates, and I send her postcards of Tucson and hand drawn maps of places I hope she’ll make it to. As I write this, I’m wearing the ring Xochitl gave me this morning. It’s braided out of foil from the packaging of a bottle, and bound together carefully with white thread. She told me it’s ok to post her story on the Internet, at least these parts of it. I told her when she gets out, I’ll buy her a beer for our birthdays. She turned 21 in detention, and I turned 21 last Tuesday.


Update: Xochitl called me to tell me she’s gotten out. She’s relieved and grateful, and is with family in Phoenix.

Xochitl’s release was possible in no small part because of the work of Mariposas Sin Fronteras. To donate to the bond funds for other detainees, you can follow the Mariposas on Facebook, and keep up with their campaigns. Here’s the link: Mariposas Sin Fronteras

–Hannah Gold


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