*Featured Image: Refugee woman wearing ankle monitor, by Ana M. Fores
Besos, Not Borders
by Ana M. Fores Tamayo
A few weeks ago, my daughter got into one of those nostalgic conversations with me trying to recall the long ago; she wanted to find out about her distant past, where she came from. That meant, of course, she needed to know more about where I began: my past as a refugee child. She knew I was born in Cuba; she remembered my dad had been a lawyer; she understood he had become a professor at Fordham University in New York.
But beyond that, she did not know much about my past.
To her, my father had never been some figure escaping political repression; he was just grampa. In turn, I was not some present day adjunct faculty or human rights activist working to end family detention or the imprisonment of innocent women and children, or a nonconformist shaped by the events of her past.
To my young daughter, I was just plain ol’ mom.
So that evening, cuddled into our respective couches over the miles and telephone connections, my daughter asked me to disentangle my story from the cobwebs of memory, so that I had to think about my father, my mother, my siblings. I remembered our story of immigration back then, in the 70s, and I mused at how different that story was from the tales of Japanese internment, or how different that seemed, too, from the nightmares we hear from refugee families now.
Today, when I read about the situation of refugees and the horrors it cost the people interned, I realize that most comments always refer to the Japanese internment camps, rightly so.
They were horrific.
So many articles today state that refugee camps — and anything like them — have got to go.
But while doing my research for this piece, I have been reading all the background I can find on the Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program of the 1960s and 70s. Looking at this program through adult eyes, I see that it did many of the same things refugee camps did back in the 40s and, likewise, refugee prisons now do: deport, resettle, and get rid of refugees, make asylum seekers disappear.
Back then when I was a little girl just coming over, however, the government at least had established their “resettlement claims” with a semblance of humanity, even if their motives were purely arbitrary. Whether it was to gain teachers, or to take refugees away from one area (Miami) to other less populated ones all over the United States, they were human about the choices given us, and they treated us for what we were, refugees escaping to save our lives.
Now, refugee camps do not think of “people” or the individuals whose lives the government is altering: they either want to deport women, children, and entire families fleeing for their lives, or they just want to keep them “jailed” and earn money from their misery. Indeed, they deceive refugees coming in by calling these detention centers or prisons “casa hogar.” There is nothing “homey” about these places: they are cold, harsh, unfeeling.
You see, many of these new places are for profit centers, and with their earning at least $250 per person per day on average — up to almost $300 in the latest “family detention center” in Dilley, Texas — that’s something these predatory jails want to keep open. They do not think of people; they only think of profit.
But back then we were not jailed; we were not deported.
My family must have been one of the first recipients of the Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program, and we were definitely “resettled.” It may have been a “voluntary” program, but how voluntary can it be for a man with 5 children and 1 on the way, a professional who saw himself in a strange land, who did not speak a word of the language, who was making $25 a week at a lab cleaning floors (a lawyer, mind you!), and suddenly this beneficent government offered to help him and then give him a job with a living wage, but only if he moved to a god forsaken place so different from the place he knew.
My father had his pride, but he also had seven mouths to feed. And my father saw goodness in the American people and what they had to offer; he did not see them benefitting themselves, although they gained from his employment as a teacher in places where no one else wanted to go.
How different things are now!
Do you think the 19 year old girl, Lilian Yamileth Olivia-Bardales, who tried to commit suicide after 8 months of detention without any hope of reprieve, feels the same way?
Olivia-Bardales and her son were deported on Monday, June 8th, 2015 from the Karnes Detention Center; I am sure neither the center nor ICE wanted to draw any more “unnecessary” attention to the injustices that her incarceration and suicide attempt highlighted, so they hustled her out of the country quickly, not letting her lawyers see her, keeping her in solitary confinement after her suicide attempt, and denying her doctor’s visits, although they said that she was under medical watch the entire time. Oh how they lie.
I do not have many memories of my own early days in this country. But they cannot be so horrific as what is going on now.
I do remember sitting by myself in a lonely schoolyard, the grass all green around me, looking at the school children playing, laughing, all away from me, far far away. They peered strangely at me, laughing at me, taunting me with words I did not understand.
They cackled at my 3 hand-me-down dresses from the Salvation Army.
I remember one terrible day of rain, how my brothers and I had come home after school, sopping wet from the rain. Our only pair of shoes were ruined. My mother stared miserably, took them, and — not knowing what else to do — shoved them into the oven to dry.
Of course the next day the shoes curled up beyond recognition. As an adult, I can laugh at the silliness of that surreal morning.
But I cannot quite remember my mother’s anguish as she silently wept those bitter tears and kept us home from school that morning, on another rainy day.
Soon after my father said yes to the Resettlement Program.
The government was promising to send Cuban professionals to far-flung places, the little towns of Iowa, Montana, Illinois, and such. These remote locations needed good teachers too, and no one else was willing to go. In turn, they would pay Cubans for the year’s worth of their degree revalidation, aside from English classes, and their resettlement costs.
Mighty proud the government was that their Public Relations had worked so well with this Cuban Resettlement Program, as many of the Cubans coming over were choosing to “resettle.”
There was still a lot of prejudice, though, just like there is today.
So funny, how I saw things as a little girl… I do not remember my first two years of Florida at all: I traumatized most of it away. I do not remember much of Montana either, except that we lived in a compound-like apartment complex, filled with other Cubans, but I was happy enough there. I do not remember school, but I do remember the clouds so blue and white, with the beautiful Rocky Mountains in the background, and the one friend I had, also a Cuban girl.
What do refugee children have now to remember? What do you think Olivia-Bardales’ son will remember of the country that ousted his mother, made her want to kill herself?
My father wanted us to have memories.
He wanted a better life for us, just like all people who flee as refugees want for their children. Just like all these mothers who are now interned in Karnes Detention Center, or Dilley, or Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center want for their own — a noble life away from fear.
Is that so much to ask?
So that’s why we moved to Montana, and that’s why we went off to Minnesota afterward — when my dad got his first teaching job — to a wee bit trailer farm out in the boondocks. The nearest town of 1000 people loomed 7 miles away from our lonely tree farm, the only place we could afford to pay.
In North Branch, Minnesota, my dad began to teach the year after he received his revalidation.
And here, in this little town in the north country, I saw the happiest years of my childhood. My first real memories — and they are wonderful — are of Minnesota, a land of beautiful people, of folks who loved us, of friends who cared for me as me, who accepted me for all my quirks, my accent, my funny little ways.
I guess that’s when I really conquered English…. when I first said my Pledge of Allegiance…. when I learned the magic of books.
The people there let me thrive; they encouraged me to do so.
Maybe this is why I have such fond memories of Minnesota. It was the first time I remember people being kind.
You must be wondering why I have spent so much time telling you about my personal recollections as a refugee child. Maybe it is so we can notice the differences between then and now…
Today they are jailing mothers, children, and families. Back then, they “voluntarily resettled” us; even if it were all psychological, it at least seemed as if we had the semblance of choice, of freedom.
After the horrors of Japanese internment all wanted to forget; and after the Hungarian refugees were resettled at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey in the 1950s — which left some frustration — the government thought they might begin treating refugees differently.
Besides, Castro’s Cuba was not going to last. (Ahem!)
Thus, the form of resettlement made such a difference in our lives; we grew up safe and sound, and now as adults we can look back on good wholesome memories.
What choice do refugees coming in now have? What kind of memories do you think they will keep of this land, the land of freedom they had heard would help them?
If you look at most Cuban people today, their love for this country — aside from their politics — is true. Why is that? The treatment one receives is immeasurably returned, even all those years later. And the money the government spent on the Cuban exodus has well been paid back by the success of the many Cuban accomplishments in both arts and sciences.
I look at my father’s love for this country, his unwavering belief that the United States was the best in the world — no matter what — and I can understand why. The government back then really helped him, even when they were helping themselves.
I look at the many Cuban refugees and their offspring, and I see all are hard working individuals, who strive to make this their country a better place, more than 5o years later.
So why can’t the government do that same thing now?
Why has the government forgotten what they seem to have learned after the Japanese internment or the problems they faced with the disgruntlement of Hungarian refugees? Why have they erased the entire episode of the successful Cuban Resettlement Program, and why do they not want to reenact it now, with this new wave of immigrants, who is in so much need, who is suffering so?
Maybe refugees coming in now are not as professional as others were in the past, but always when immigrants enter a new country, they have taken menial jobs and have done them carefully and with detail and care, so that their children can get an education. The next generation then goes further, gets ahead a ways, until by the third or fourth generations, they become part of the fabric of what it is to be American.
It seems that as these next generation Americans forget what their ancestors went through once upon a time, they deny new immigrants the rights their own flesh and blood once had to live and struggle through day by day…
A few months ago, I went to visit a young mother of 2 at Karnes Detention Center. Her child was about 2, but she was so thin she looked like a babe in arms. As we went to talk in the frigid reception area, the young child was listless, so she lied down on the cold hard floor, putting her little head on her mother’s thin legs and falling asleep.
It was that or the icy ceramic tile…
We spoke for exactly one hour, timed, and though the young mother told us things were better now that RAICES and other rights activists were protesting every day, things were still difficult: the food was awful and expensive, she had no freedoms to speak of, she was one of the first to arrive at the center when it opened, and though all her friends were now gone (deported?), she was still there, waiting and waiting and waiting.
She was irritable and depressed, but hopeful that finally someone was visiting her, and that this meant that someone was listening, that someone would take of her case. After 3 months of waiting, of being denied, was it her turn for something positive? Her first credible fear test had been denied, although she had escaped from a home where daily, a homacidal cousin threatened the entire family so he could take their money for drugs. When she told him she had none, he threatened her child.
She could not take it anymore and ran.
When she got to the United States with her child, she did not expect this treatment. She did not expect to be put into a prison. She did not expect to have to pay $1.65 for a can of soda when we can get it outside in the waiting area for $1.25, or $2 for a snickers bar when she had no money whatsoever. Yet she had to pay it, to get the money somehow, because her daughter gagged on the insipid food they fed them at the center, and she would not eat it.
She was wasting away. As I looked at the sleeping child on the legs of her mother — an older child, because that’s all she really was — I was sickened by our cruelty.
The government outsources these facilities to for-profit centers. Though there are many, the most common are the GEO group, which owns Karnes Detention Center, and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s oldest and largest of the many sleaze bag operations profiting off the misery of immigrant women, children, and families. Most recently, CCA opened Dilley, the largest “Family Residential Center” in the United States — or as protesters like to call it — a “euphemism for a low-security prison.”
The GEO group also owns the franchise the center uses to sell this young refugee and all inmates $100 telephone cards for $110, and who knows how much they charged per minute while using it? This young girl’s husband, who lives in the Bronx and had been trying to get her out since she arrived, sent her money every week. For every $50 he sent her, GEO kept $6: sounds like loan sharking to me… This is standard procedure, and prisoners cannot get money by any other means except through GEO machines. And if the young woman could work — she cannot because children must be 3 so women who have younger children do not qualify — she would only be paid $1 per hour: how does that compare to adjunct labor?
I was surprised the guards actually let me bring in my bag when I entered the facility, after making us wait endlessly outside, in the waiting room. Of course this was another delay tactic, one they said they never do. Yet we were waiting there at least 45 minutes before we were finally called in, and when we spoke to the young mother, she said she had never received a notice, though she had been in her room the entire time, just as she was supposed to be. After all, where would she go? It is a prison, after all.
When I realized I had my bag with me inside, I emptied it of all contents this young mom could use and gave them to her. If I had known this previously, I would have brought her more things, for her and the baby. As it was I gave her a couple of pens, a note pad, a hand cream, some lipstick…
and, for a time, she regained a bit of hope.
RAICES stopped her deportation just in time, but for how long? Cases like hers are endless. One after another after another.
I just finished going through a list of people who attended refugee asylum clinics that a group of independent volunteers have been holding for the past few months at Catholic Charities of Dallas, and as I called the participants to find out their status, I kept hearing one sad story after another.
Out of 66 cases, only 3 have been successful. With the rest, there are 12 definite deportations, anticipating a final date with dread, while the others are in some sort of limbo, waiting between a court date or a result of their hearing, to see if they qualify for asylum.
But given that less than 10% are granted reprieve, can we hold out much hope?
The young mothers I am speaking to now, who are outside on their own recognizance, both have ankle monitors. Guess who owns the company who handles these humiliating electronic watchdogs? Of course, the GEO Group… These innocent women are trapped inside prison walls by these for profit centers, yet if they are released, they are trapped by them too: when will it all end? And now, if ICE releases these refugee women on bond (and most likely a high bond at that!), they are told they will get ankle monitors if they reveal to anyone how much their bond cost: intimidation, retaliation, anyone?
What has happened to the United States that I came to as a refugee child?
Yesterday, I spoke to a mom who was coming back on a bus from Chicago to Dallas because the folks in Chicago would not accept her. I guess they did not realize what they had bargained for: the mother had two children with her, so they sent her packing.
After almost 24 hours on a bus with two small children, and an ankle monitor that had discharged because the batteries only last so long, she had to sit perfectly still for another 3 hours, not moving, so she could recharge the battery once more, since she cannot take the ankle monitor off.
And her children? What is she to do with 2 small and tired children while she sits waiting for a battery charge?
Later I spoke to the other mom who escaped her husband; he was coming after her with a machete. She says now in the summer she is especially ashamed to go out into the street, to walk about, to have people stare at her as if she were the criminal.
All she did was take her oldest daughter and run; he had kidnapped the younger two. I still hear her sobs as her voice quivers when she thinks about them —
Yet she is the criminal…
The GEO Group does not think about such technicalities. They just care about the millions they are making not only off their Detention Centers, but also their accompanying paraphernalia…
In April 2015, US District Court Judge Dolly Gee said that family detention centers were illegal, yet women and children are still being detained there today. Further, the court seemed to be dragging its feet making the decision public, while high-level negotiations were ongoing; they were to have the decision by the end of May, then it was June, and in July, it finally came down. But what difference has it made? What will happen when another June and July comes and goes once more? To me, it sounds as if everyone is just trying to figure out how to circumvent the law. In the meantime, both Dilley and Karnes are applying for Children’s Daycare licenses: why? Even if they have not gotten these, why are mothers and children still held there? Are these facilities getting around the Flores agreement from 18 years ago, which says that children may not be held in restrictive, unlicensed facilities?
So it all comes down to money.
The Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program was kind. It helped refugees start a new life, while also helping impoverished or isolated areas of the United States become revitalized. It was a win-win for all involved, both government and refugee people.
It helped my family.
It helped me.
But it does not help private corporations looking to make big bucks off government moneys and human misery.
Maybe someone in the government might see this.
Maybe some history professor might tell someone high up, some government official, “Hey, do you remember the past? Look at the seeds you planted.”
Maybe some writer might slip them her work, and have them read about their own turbid past and inglorious present…
Besos, not borders. We reap what we sow.