When I visited women in an immigrant detention center on Friday, what struck me the most is how detention takes away even the smallest of acts of agency and freedom, ones we take for granted. As the weather gets colder here in Tucson, I can turn up the heat. I can put on an extra jacket. When I am hungry I can choose what to cook and eat. I can decide when to go outside, when to exercise, when to rest. I can turn the lights off in my room whenever I choose. None of those options exist for immigrant detainees. The system of detention acts on them and it is that force, not their own choices, that seem to matter.
I visited detention the morning after President Obama’s announcement of administrative relief. Another seemingly external force changing the system in which immigrants seem trapped. This time a benevolent force, a change that although far from ideal, will lead to a better life for approximately 4 million people. But the decision still seems to have been made by a force acting from above. In the same way that management in a detention center could suddenly decide to turn the heat up so that detainees would be more comfortable or serve pozole and tostadas for lunch. Such decisions from authority perpetuate the idea that undocumented migrants have little agency in their own lives.
In reality it was not that Obama acted to sweepingly change circumstances for four million individuals, leaving them only to respond. It was those very immigrants, and many who will not benefit from relief, who worked and organized and fought and pressured so that this action might come about. It is those very immigrants who have been living their own agency and freedom for years and decades, even when the system does not recognize them. Immigrants who are protagonists of their own story, not subjects of another narrative.
No matter what the cut off requirements are for administrative relief, every day there are new protagonists. After my Friday morning in the detention center, I spent Friday afternoon welcoming in a Guatemalan mother and her daughter who had recently crossed the border and been released by ICE to fight their immigration case. When the daughter was three years old, the mother had left Guatemala to live in New York to make a better life for her family. Ten years later, she returned to Guatemala to bring her daughter with her.
The mother will not be eligible for relief, even though she has an eight year old US citizen child in New York, because she has not been continuously in the country for the past five years. She will not be eligible for relief because she decided to act radically and courageously to reunite her family after ten years.
Many people are wondering how exactly to respond to President Obama’s announcement. We should recognize the significance of the moment. But we should respond by acting as we should already have been: accompanying our immigrant brothers and sisters in their journeys, as actors in their own destiny. Because we acknowledge the significance of our country’s laws and system but we also recognize that we are part of a larger drama and living toward a much more important destiny.