Wearing the immigrant uniform

January 31, 2018

Joel Sronce looks at an immigrant detention center through the eyes of the people who come to visit their loved ones, in an essay published by the Piedmont Left Review.

A YOUNG boy from Alabama, maybe 8 years old, rode east across the state into bordering Georgia. He went with his mother and his sister, who's a couple of years older. Maybe it was quiet in the car. Or maybe the siblings were fighting, or laughing, playing car games. Maybe the mother stole looks at them through the rearview mirror.

His sister wore a small shirt, nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe it was a little tight on her; maybe there were no sleeves.

But the boy's shirt thrilled him, filled their journey with meaning. It was the jersey for the Mexican national soccer team. He hadn't seen the man they were all going to visit, the man who he calls Dad, since Mexico qualified for the 2018 World Cup. Even as a young kid, he was eager for the look in Dad's eyes: A bright human moment that waited at the end of their road.

David Fraccaro saw the boy and his family when they arrived.

"He was as country as you get," Fraccaro told me in an interview. The boy, his mother and sister were white, each with as thick a Southern accent as you could find.

A rec yard inside a detention center


THE FAMILY had arrived before Fraccaro, but all were now stalled in the area between a parking lot and a gated entrance. Maybe the boy tugged at his jersey self-consciously; maybe his mother held his hand, or busied herself with his tousled hair.

"Guys, help them figure out what to do here," a man's voice growled. "They can't go and visit like this in these clothes."

The instructions came from one of the guards at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. His orders referenced the siblings, who like Fraccaro, were waiting to visit someone inside.

Fraccaro watched the mother, who had driven for hours from Alabama. He witnessed her panic, her desperation and anger. And he watched the kid, his young face broken with the impossible attempt at making sense of what was happening.

Helplessly, Fraccaro began to imagine the child's thoughts, staring at the barbed-wire fence and the terrible, impenetrable distance between himself and the man he considers his father: Why's my dad inside? Why did I just get turned away? And I have all this fear. And I'm hearing the terror in my mom's voice. I really wanted to show my dad and just have one bright human moment with my dad inside, and now I'm being told I can't even wear this uniform?

It was a moment that broke Fraccaro completely.

This is dehumanization. It's the process by which state oppression functions. It allows for divisive, excruciating and intolerable systemic practices that we should all rail against.

It's having your possessions taken away, being put in a uniform, thrown inside and barked at by guards. It's not having enough money in your commissary account to afford the prison's peanut butter and oats--the only food that gives you the energy to want to exercise, or to bother going out for your two hours of sunlight. It's receiving solitary confinement for speaking up. It's being shipped back to the poverty and violence you fled.

Dehumanization is the incalculable mental-health toll on children who don't understand, and on the adults who are unable to explain it to them. It's the for-profit prison companies that hold in horrible conditions Black and Brown citizens by the millions, the same companies that order tens of thousands of new mother-child beds to be shipped to their detention centers near the southern border. It's the writing on the wall: The plaques of leading white men in the visitation room of a detention center with a mostly African American staff, underpaid and trapped in a depressed economy dependent on jobs from the center. It's the company's annual revenues exceeding a billion dollars.

These are the realities that can only be executed through dehumanization, through normalizing a crimmigration system upheld by racism, xenophobia and a lack of unified, uncompromising opposition.


THIS WASN'T Fraccaro's first time at a detention facility. Far from it. He worked as an actor in New York City in the years leading up to September 11. After the towers came down, he began to go to a church that had a program to visit immigrants inside detention centers. He went one Saturday, then he went every weekend for eight years. The course of his life changed.

Fraccaro now serves as the director for the FaithAction International House in Greensboro, North Carolina. Throughout their 20-year history, the organization has worked alongside new immigrants and refugees each year, hoping to educate and connect them to others across lines of culture and faith.

Back in the centers in New York and New Jersey, Fraccaro saw the number of detentions rise exponentially throughout the post-9/11 Bush presidency. He saw numbers continue to grow under Obama, then take on a new form under Trump.

"What [Trump] was throwing out in terms of threats around immigration--that wasn't just a bark; the bite has come," Fraccaro said. "There's been a 25 percent increase from 2016 in terms of immigration arrests--what they call 'inland,' not necessarily including border arrests, which are actually down because supposedly less people are trying to cross--and there's been a 42 percent increase in the amount of people that had no criminal histories. We're definitely seeing that played out here [in North Carolina]."

It's not only the number of detainees that has grown in recent years. As mass incarceration and deportations have spiked simultaneously over the last several decades--restructuring the legality of the discrimination of Black, Brown and working-class people--the accompanying neoliberal policies have permitted systemic privatization. Private prisons have been welcomed with open arms.

Fraccaro explained:

There are only about 10 federally run detention facilities nationally of the 200 that are out there. And they're saying..."Why not look at the prison model and privatize companies that we can then pay to run these detention facilities?" And that's the whole idea of criminalizing the immigrant who's put inside for a misdemeanor crime...run by folks who are trained to run prisons...

We have in our policies that a certain number of immigrants are to be detained on any given day. That's put into a budget, and so there's a certain amount of money, then, that is given to these private prison companies. Of course, those same companies sometimes will give back to the campaigns of either state or federal representatives that are going to push for certain policies that keep them in business.

CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the aforementioned Stewart facility along with many other detention centers and private prisons, was co-founded by the former chair of the Tennessee Republican Party, Thomas W. Beasley. On CoreCivic's website, Beasley writes that the company's founding in 1983 (on the immediate heels of Ronald Reagan's war on drugs) was not due to exploiting the exploding incarceration rates, but due to the government-operated prisons' "absolute lack of competition." Beasley writes, "We became innovative competition in an arena that had never before had competition." He describes their standards as "the Bible of proper prison management in this country."

The Stewart facility alone has been targeted for closure for years. According to Detention Watch Network, problems at the Stewart center include, "physical and verbal abuse, spoiled food and non-potable water, lack of recreation time, minimal access to legal materials, substandard medical care, little oversight or accountability and the absence of any meaningful grievance procedures."

Yet in all their Bible-like propriety, CoreCivic locked in a total revenue of $1.85 billion in 2016, up from $1.79 billion the previous year.


IN HIS years of experience, as for anyone working among populations assailed by mass incarceration and mass deportations, Fraccaro has seen hate, desperation and loss. But to no surprise, he has seen unassailable humanity and beauty, too.

In New Jersey, Fraccaro worked with an organization that sent phone cards to immigrants at a detention facility, among them a group of Tibetan, Colombian and Somali women. (For the record, you can't do that at Stewart; you can only use the expensive phone card company with which the center has a financial agreement.)

The New Jersey facility permitted no scissors and no books, but it allowed construction paper, which Fraccaro's organization sent as well.

The women would sharpen the phone cards and use them to cut the paper. The result, Fraccaro described, was "the most beautiful bouquet of colorful paper flowers you've ever seen in your life." A soup can from the commissary held it together at the bottom. (The bouquet sits in the FaithAction House in Greensboro.)

When he looks at the bouquet today, Fraccaro still asks himself, "How was somebody able to hang in there and create that kind of beauty in the midst of that kind of hell?"

It's a rhetorical question for which Fraccaro doesn't have an answer. No one does. But he searches for the personal, for the compassion and hope necessary to help keep someone afloat.


BACK AT the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, as the young boy stood broken and bewildered, Fraccaro wondered about him. A white kid from a mostly-white town in Alabama: How much does he wear his Mexico soccer uniform? How much does he talk about it? How much pride does he have in it?

Whatever the case, on this day, he proudly wore the jersey for the Mexican man who Fraccaro believed was the boy's stepfather. And he was turned away.

At a loss, Fraccaro began talking to the 8-year-old.

"Oh, wow, Mexico's your team, huh?" Fraccaro asked. "That's awesome; they're my team as well."

This kindled a conversation. Soon, Fraccaro brought up a different kind of football. As it turned out, neither could believe that Auburn had just beaten Alabama.

"It brought a little bit of relief to the gravity of the moment," Fraccaro explained.

It helped them bond; it helped the boy feel safe with Fraccaro's group, as they took them to a detention visitation center nearby to get new clothes.

Fraccaro doesn't know for sure, but he said he believed the guards found a problem with the shirt of the boy's sister, so they ordered both of them to change.

Maybe it was a little tight on her; maybe there were no sleeves.

She was 10 years old.

"There was nothing wrong with the clothes," Fraccaro fumed during our interview, his voice faltering.

He thinks, or maybe he hopes, that eventually, the kids got in. He hopes the boy was able to simply put something on over the uniform, still able to lift it up to show his dad their jersey.


LIKE THE bouquet, Fraccaro has seen astonishing humanity across languages and cultures in the midst of the hell of detention. Like with the young boy, many times all it took was soccer.

In New Jersey, the detainees didn't have outside time, only recreation-room time. They would crumple up a ball with a bunch of rubber bands. They would connect with those from other nations and cultures without the same language, yet who would still knew the same rules of soccer. Their terrible conditions were ballasted, for a moment, with the evanescent retreat of sports. Connected they were some of the tiny moments of transcendence that made their condition endurable.

"If you shared a soccer ball, celebrated a goal, had a funny moment--even without knowing the same language you have a common goal," Fraccaro remembered.

Occasionally, in Georgia as well as New Jersey, when detainees didn't want to talk about what was going on in the facility, they would talk about their soccer games inside. And they wanted to know how their favorite teams were doing in the outside world. (Stop and think about that.)

Sometimes, there were TVs in certain detention centers. When some of the West African teams played in the early 2000s, Fraccaro remembers how much hope and pride the games carried for many of the detainees. In that kind of hell, watching their team was a chance to reclaim a sense of dignity.

These are nice images, but they do not display "good immigrants" mistaken for "bad" ones, nor do they suddenly reveal a humanity that the detainees might not otherwise have possessed.

And our empathy is not action.

We should not fight for due process, for safety from detention and deportation, for amnesty, and for revolutionary systemic change because they are "good immigrants," nor because they are exceptionalized. We should not fight because they are DREAMers, but because they are human beings. Because they flee some form of a U.S-.backed hell in their home country to enter an over-policed neighborhood in a new land. Because they share more in common with the working class across the world than some fabricated shared value or interest or flag ever connected someone to a president, a senator or CEO. Because an injury to one is an injury to all.

So many immigrants and refugees who have not been detained have had the courage to establish their agency and enact change. The mega-marches in 2006 brought down the proposed mass-criminalization of the undocumented, and relentless sit-ins and political pressure by the DREAMers won DACA in 2012.

Without revitalizing and amplifying these movements and the active solidarity that brings larger systemic challenges into the same fight, international systems of oppression aren't going anywhere.

Finding empathy with detainees is important to their struggle, their sustenance and their humanity. But without turning that empathy into action, the physically detained will not achieve their freedom, and neither will anyone who fights for a better world.

First published at Piedmont Left Review.

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