Finding the Disappeared: The Immigration Detention Archive Conundrum

The American Friends Service Committee protests outside the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, NJ.

This May and June, immigration officials are planning deportation raids targeting Central American mothers and children, the largest this year. These raids will likely result in the detention of hundreds of people. While journalists are reporting on these issues now, what will happen in three months, six months, or a year, when the news cycle has moved on? Where’s the archive of immigration detention for future historians?

Since the U.S. developed laws governing who would be allowed to legally cross its borders, there have always been some people who were detained while determining their eligibility. Even Ellis Island, which has come to symbolize America welcoming the poor and disenfranchised from around the world into its borders, was described as “an island prison” and “grim detention center” prior to its closing in 1954. (Mark Dow, American Gulag, 6) But it was really the passage of the Illegal immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in 1996 by President Bill Clinton that created our current immigrant detention situation. IIRIRA and AEDPA mandated detention for immigrants with criminal convictions and expanded what crimes count as felonies. After these laws were passed, former misdemeanors like jumping a subway turnstile could result in someone getting deported. Asylum seekers were detained, often for weeks or months, while their cases were decided. Placed in detention centers with little access to lawyers, friends, or families, asylees were given a devil’s choice: fight to stay while living in miserable conditions or return to their native country where political or other persecution might wait for them. These acts resulted in a huge jump in the numbers of detainees. While in 1994, approximately 6000 immigrants were detained, by 2015, that number had grown to 34,000.

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One of the centers contributing 300 beds to that number is the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, NJ, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. It opened in the mid-1990s, however, under the ownership of Esmor Correctional Services Corporation, a corrections company that started by operating welfare hotels in New York City. The lowest bidder for the contract, INS hired Esmor to turn a former warehouse into a facility to house people. Quickly, chaos ensued. Poorly-trained and low-paid guards harassed detainees. Privacy was nonexistent, even in the showers, which were open to view. Lights were kept on 24 hours a day. Food made the detainees sick, which made the bathrooms putrid. Finally, after many complaints to authorities, the detainees “rioted” in June 1995. Nineteen detainees became plaintiffs in a case against Esmor, the first time that non-citizens had been given the right to sue a US corporation.

Photo following the Esmor “riot” showing damage by detainees. The focus on the damage rather than the detainees complaints made them seem like violent criminals.

This past fall, my graduate students and I began to research the 1995 incident to contribute content for the Humanities Action Lab’s States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories traveling exhibit and website. We were excited about the project, in part because the Elizabeth Detention Center was just a few miles from our campus though none of us knew about it before class started. But what became clear immediately was the challenges of doing research on immigrant detention in the recent past, especially since we wanted to highlight the voices of the detainees as much as possible.

The most accessible sources were newspaper articles covering the “riot” and the lawsuit. The news coverage tended to focus on the perspective of INS officials, rather than detainees, though certain reporters, like Celia Dugger of the New York Times, wrote about the detainees. Dugger’s special report about Hajia Zuwera Kassindja, a woman from Togo who fled to the U.S. as an asylum seeker to escape from female genital mutilation only to get caught up in the detention system, helped to propel her case to national attention and make gender persecution a valid cause for asylum status. But Dugger’s human interest stories, while important to shaping immigration policy, were far from the norm. The news media struggled with what to call the incident at Esmor and the detainees themselves, resulting in articles with awkward titles like “Feds Probing Alien Center” in the Daily News. Riot was often used in headlines about the incident, shaping readers’ perceptions that it was a violent overthrow of a federal facility rather than an action by detainees who had exhausted the grievance process against a malfeasant corporation. And even though it was unprecedented, the trial’s verdict, in which the judge awarded monetary damages to the plaintiffs, received almost no news coverage at all. If detainees wanted to get in the news, it seemed, “rioting” was the best way to do so.

Our other main source were documents pertaining to the lawsuit, which had been prosecuted by the Rutgers University-Newark Law School’s Constitutional Law Clinic. I scoured boxes to find depositions by detainees that my students could use. While these sources seemed to give us what we were searching for — the voices of the detained — in reality, the depositions had a specific purpose: to elicit information that could be used by the plaintiffs. In a more freewheeling interview, follow-up questions would probe for interesting stories and tidbits about the narrator’s life. In the depositions, however, lawyers asked question in a set series, digging for very particular chunks of information. While this gave us more insight into the experience of detention, it was not entirely satisfying for understanding detainees as well-rounded people with experiences beyond detention.

With the help of our community partner, the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrant Rights Program, we were able to meet current detainees while on an Orwellian tour of the Elizabeth Detention Center. While talking to these men was heartbreaking and eye-opening, they could not, of course, provide us any information about what had happened at the same facility twenty years before.

We had fallen into some serious archival gaps.

First, immigrant detention is difficult to research because the private corporations that run detention centers are not required to make their records public, unlike a federal agency. Clearly this benefits ICE as they can deflect researchers by saying that most of the records remain with the private operators. What about politicians and organizations dealing with immigration issues? Politicians often seal their records for a period of time and organizational files may not be located nearby. A national organization may not deal with the specifics of a local situation and smaller, local organizations may not have records that can be searched, especially by students in the course of a semester. While talking to detainees would be another method of gaining information, after detention, many detainees are deported, making it nearly impossible to find them again. If they do stay in the U.S., they may have moved or changed names. Even finding photos of the detainees in the Esmor case was difficult. Luckily, the New York Times had taken some photos of the lead plaintiff Hawa Jama that we were able to access. Otherwise, the only photos we found of the facility were of the damage caused by the rioters, which tended to support Esmor’s contention that they were out-of-control, violent, and looking to break out of the detention center.

Access to images was difficult thanks to copyright laws.

But above and beyond these challenges, we confronted difficulties because this history was so recent. Ironically, because the events took place in the mid-1990s, there was newspaper coverage, but it was not necessarily available online. We undertook this research within the course of one semester with no money for research trips, which might have allowed us to visit some organizational archives or to get to microfilmed copies of newspapers. There weren’t born-digital sources about these incidents the way there are about the hunger strikers protesting immigrant detention, which even had its own hashtag #freedomgiving. When digital historian Roy Rosenzweig was asked what he thought the growth of the internet meant for future historians, he saw two possibilities — scarcity or abundance. Scarcity because digital files could be so easily lost and abundance because they could be created with such ease. While generally speaking abundance has been the trend, in researching these incidents, which happened on the cusp of the internet revolution, scarcity, or at least a sameness in sources, was the result.

Finding the voice of detainees while also contextualizing their stories within a larger history of immigration law, domestic security, and racism in the U.S. necessitated that we pull together pieces of information from varied sources. But, as the Haitian anthropologist Michel Rolph Trouillot wrote, the creation of an archive “is an active act of production that prepares facts for historical intelligibility.” (Silencing the Past, 52) The contents of an archive are a political decision. The privatization of immigration detention since the 1990s has precluded the creation of an archive, silencing the voices of the immigrants and asylum seekers detained in grim warehouses and the activists who have worked to save their lives. Violated once by their detention, these people have been violated again through their erasure from the historical record.

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