‘Dear Carlos’: exhibit illuminates hope in detention

Courtesy of Diana Liu

Over 40 million people born outside the United States now call the nation home. This statistic accounted for a fifth of the world’s total migrants in 2017 and is four times greater than it was in 1965, when immigration laws replaced quotas based on national origin. Of that 40 million, approximately 10.5 million immigrants, or 3.2 percent of the nation’s total population, were “unauthorized” to exist in the United States (Pew Research Center, “Key findings about U.S. immigrants,” 06.19.2019).

Mexico remains the country from which most unauthorized immigrants come to the United States, and the decrease in Mexican immigrants coincides with the decrease in the total population of illegal immigrants since 2007 (Pew Research Center). Instead, there are increased migrant populations from Central America and Asia, regions experiencing upticks in political instability and violence. Since Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration in 2017, his administration has initiated a series of immigration policies that are not only much harsher his predecessors’, but that were decried as “massive and systemic human rights violations” to the UN Human Rights Council (International Association of Democratic Lawyers, “Human Rights violations in the United States of America: Emergency at the Southern Border,” 04.13.2019). Namely, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy in April 2018 that resulted in the apprehension of 8,000 families along the southwest border, their referral to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution and the separation of thousands of children from their parents by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE (Catholic Legal Immigration Network, “Timeline: Family separations under the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy,” 2018).

In response to the rhetoric dehumanizing migrants, Carlos Eduardo Espina ’20 began to write to migrants detained by ICE. These letters were organized into an exhibit entitled “Dear Carlos: Mail from a Detention Complex” by the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education. It was part of a larger exhibition funded by the Mellon Foundation called “Walls, Borders, Fences,” the purpose of which is to commemorate the three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall and to bring attention to the dehumanization of immigrants in centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Espina credited the Consortium with making the exhibit come to life, and in particular Professor Maria Höhn, Rick Jones from the Geography Department, Matthew Brill-Carlat ’19 and Ava McElhone Yates ’21.

“Dear Carlos” is simple in its setup: A desk and chair are enframed on one side by a glass window, through which the trees outside the College Center dominate the view. To the other side, a wall is covered with photocopies of correspondences between Carlos and ICE detainees along the southern border. On the desk are coloring pencils, printer paper to leave short messages, and a list on which individuals can sign up to write letters. Espina reflected on the power these messages have in providing hope: “Although people may not realize it, a short message of encouragement can be a huge boost to someone who is detained and feeling helpless.”

Courtesy of Diana Liu

The letters tell their authors’ stories and are unique in voice. Espina recognized this, sharing, “The people I write to are from all over the world and speak many different languages. Each of their individual stories is powerful, saddening and highlights the inhumanity of our current asylum process.” The recipients—who come from countries around the world such as Honduras, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ethiopia— express their gratitude to the support, both with words and in art.

“Hello Carlos Espina, it is a pleasure to greet you. It makes me happy that you liked the drawing of the rose that I sent you. I like to draw a lot. I sent you two more drawings that I hope you like,” one letter from Sept. 21 stated in Spanish. Another writer described how they are in their sixth month of detention after arriving from Venezuela with three children.

For Espina, who moved to Texas from his native Uruguay at the age of five, the process of writing letters to individuals detained by ICE began on a painfully personal note: “In April of 2019, a good friend of mine who is from Belize was detained by ICE and sent to a detention facility in Pearsall, Texas. In the three months that he was detained (he is currently out on bail), I communicated with him constantly.”

It was through his friend that Espina first learned of the hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers within the facility who had no support systems in the United States. At his friend’s request, he began writing letters to offer emotional support. As of Nov. 5, Espina has raised $3,800 through a GoFundMe page and communicated with hundreds of detained refugees. The support does not end there, as Espina also connects the detainees with lawyers and family members in the United States to aid their cases.

The exhibit does not limit its impact to members of the Vassar community. Students have visited from Poughkeepsie schools and details of the exhibit have been shared with the migrants. Espina related this to the goal of writing letters at all: “Far too often, we talk about refugees and migrants in the abstract without acknowledging that they are real people…when discussing immigration policy, you almost always hear the voices of politicians, pundits and experts, but it is very rare to hear the voices of those people who are most affected by our draconian system.”

Texas currently houses 15,852 individuals in detention centers each day, more than any other state. The current state of apprehension and detention by ICE not only costs over $2 billion in taxpayers’ money, but the state of isolation many detainees expressed in their letters should be concerning.

“Walls, Borders, Fences” will be on exhibit on the second floor of the College Center until Nov. 25.

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