What a Night in Border Patrol Custody Taught Me About How We Treat Migrants

I was released from the nightmare of detention--but most are not.

Matthew Leber January 22, 2019

Faith leaders stage a "love knows no borders" action on December 10, 2018. (Layne Mullett/AFSC)

On Decem­ber 10, Inter­na­tion­al Human Rights Day, I was peer­ing through the win­dow of my iso­la­tion cell at the Impe­r­i­al Beach Bor­der Patrol Sub­sta­tion. I could see past a high­ly secured heavy met­al door to a hold­ing cell that con­tained over a dozen chil­dren who ranged in age from five to 15, by them­selves with­out any adult care­givers. Anoth­er cell con­tained women with their infants and tod­dlers. Anoth­er con­tained men. I could see moth­ers being fin­ger­print­ed while breastfeeding.

I had come to the border because I believe that now is the time for courageous action.

I was held in an eight-by-12-foot emp­ty room, with bright flu­o­res­cent lights, one met­al bench, a met­al toi­let and a one-inch thick mat­tress pad. I was told I was being held on the charge of assault­ing a Fed­er­al Offi­cer, which car­ried a pos­si­ble penal­ty of up to 10 years in prison. I was searched more than four times, and nev­er giv­en an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a phone call, even though I request­ed one sev­er­al times.

I had not assault­ed a Fed­er­al Offi­cer. What I had done was help orga­nize a peace­ful protest that morn­ing against the very sys­tems of deten­tion and depor­ta­tion that I was now bear­ing wit­ness to. Hours ear­li­er, I walked in a solemn pro­ces­sion with hun­dreds of faith lead­ers a mile and a half to the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. The event was part of the Love Knows No Bor­ders week of action, orga­nized by the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee, the Quak­er peace and jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion I work for. When we got to the bor­der, reli­gious lead­ers from Mus­lim, Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian and Quak­er tra­di­tions offered a cer­e­mo­ni­al bless­ing to migrants on the oth­er side. We were call­ing on the U.S. gov­ern­ment to respect the human right to migrate, stop the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of bor­der com­mu­ni­ties and end the deten­tion and depor­ta­tion of immigrants.

At one point in the demon­stra­tion, a con­tin­gent of Methodists, led by Bish­op Min­er­va Car­caño, wad­ed into the ocean and got down on their knees in prayer. I was stand­ing behind them in sup­port, when a Bor­der Patrol agent grabbed first my back­pack, then my body. I felt my arm twist­ed behind my back and hands squeez­ing the back of my neck. I heard Bor­der Patrol offi­cers yell, We got the insti­ga­tor!” An hour lat­er I was in the cell. 

Of course, I am not the first per­son to be tar­get­ed for my orga­niz­ing, and as a white man and a U.S. cit­i­zen, I was shield­ed from much of what activists of col­or and immi­grants face every day. Orga­niz­ers like Ravi Rag­bir, Ale­jan­dra Pab­los, Sha­cor­rie Tunkara, Maru Mora-Vil­lal­pan­do and so many oth­ers who orga­nize with and for immi­grants, are tar­get­ed by the gov­ern­ment for depor­ta­tion and impris­on­ment. These coura­geous orga­niz­ers con­tin­ue to fight for all of our well­be­ing, even when faced with some of the most dire consequences. 

But activists who are tar­get­ed have the ben­e­fit — and the bur­den — of vis­i­bil­i­ty. While their out­spo­ken activism is what gar­nered repres­sion from the state, the fact that they are pub­lic fig­ures means it is more pos­si­ble to mobi­lize in their defense. There in the Bor­der Patrol sub­sta­tion, I was with dozens of oth­ers whose names are not hash­tags, and whose sto­ries the media does not tell.

Every day, migrants from Mex­i­co, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and around the world seek refuge in the Unit­ed States. Many are flee­ing vio­lence and pover­ty that itself is a prod­uct of U.S. inter­ven­tion and desta­bi­liza­tion in the region, from U.S. sup­port of cor­rupt gov­ern­ments — includ­ing a U.S.-backed coup in Hon­duras in 2009 — to fund­ing and train­ing for repres­sive law enforce­ment. These con­di­tions force peo­ple to make an incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult choice between the dan­gers of stay­ing and the dan­gers of migra­tion. It takes courage to make the long jour­ney for an uncer­tain future and hos­tile wel­come in the Unit­ed States.

And while there are many sim­i­lar­i­ties across the migra­tion sto­ries, no two sto­ries are exact­ly alike.

The morn­ing after my arrest, I was final­ly tak­en out of my cold iso­la­tion cell, hands cuffed behind my back, and loaded into a cage in the back of a van. On the ride to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Cor­rec­tion Cen­ter in San Diego, we stopped to pick up three oth­er detainees — one man from San Fran­cis­co, orig­i­nal­ly from Guadala­jara, and two men from Honduras. 

Jose*, now in his 30s, came to the Unit­ed States with his fam­i­ly when he was two years old. This is the only coun­try he knows. About three years ago, ICE detained and deport­ed him to Guadala­jara. Eight months ago, his son was born in San Fran­cis­co (his part­ner has papers, so can trav­el back and forth). He was try­ing to cross back into the Unit­ed States to meet his son when Bor­der Patrol agents, dressed in riot gear and hold­ing machine guns, appre­hend­ed him. But he told me, my heart is clear. I might be in prison, but at least I’ll be able to meet my son when they come vis­it me.” 

Javier*, one of the migrants from Hon­duras who was in his 50s, had come with the car­a­van hop­ing to find work in con­struc­tion. While we rode in the van, he grabbed his knee in pain; it had been shat­tered from a fall as he tried to cross the border. 

Once we made it to the fed­er­al jail, I met more men, many with sim­i­lar sto­ries. We were shack­led togeth­er, celled togeth­er, and arbi­trar­i­ly moved from place to place, wait­ing to hear what would hap­pen to us next. Those of us who spoke Eng­lish would trans­late for those who did not, as we tried to nav­i­gate a com­pli­cat­ed and cru­el sys­tem together.

Around 2pm, an offi­cer called my name and I was brought into three dif­fer­ent cells in a 15-minute peri­od, with no expla­na­tion. Then, I was giv­en back my clothes and released to the street – with no belt, shoelaces, phone, or wal­let. No charges were ever filed against me. 

As I stepped out of the cold, repres­sive jail envi­ron­ment into the sun­shine, greet­ed by friends and col­leagues who had been tire­less­ly advo­cat­ing for my release, I was struck by the mag­ni­tude of injus­tices fac­ing the men, women and chil­dren I had just left behind, and the cru­el­ty of the sys­tem that held them captive. 

I had come to the bor­der because I believe that now is the time for coura­geous action. We can­not sit silent­ly as the rights and dig­ni­ty and lives of migrants are under attack. My brief time in deten­tion only strength­ened my resolve.

The men I was shack­led with, the fam­i­lies I saw from my cell, should all be out here expe­ri­enc­ing the same free­dom that I have. And I will keep orga­niz­ing — along­side the thou­sands of oth­ers who make up this move­ment — to try and make it so.

Matthew Leber is an assis­tant region­al direc­tor for the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee, and one of the orga­niz­ers of the Love Knows No Bor­ders week of action.
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