more than 2,300 immigrants each year is a lone guard on the north side of the building, wearing the green uniform of the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).The Varick Street Service Processing Center and its maze of detention cells and courtrooms occupies the bottom third of a large, nondescript building in Lower Manhattan. Its location is undoubtedly a matter of convenience, intended to shorten the distance that officers must travel as they escort detainees to the corrections buses idling in the building’s garage. The Service Processing Center is not a place for permanent holding, but rather for transition: a halfway point between freedom and long-term incarceration or removal for many of New York City’s undocumented population. According to ICE Community Relations Officer Sonia Thomas, those detained at the facility stay no longer than 12 hours, until their fate is determined. Still, with no razor-wired fences or bars over the windows, the only indication that the center temporarily holds
On a Thursday evening in late September, however, the punitive practices carried out behind the building’s illusively quotidian façade were brought to light by more than 40 immigrants’ rights activists engaging in a performative vigil known as “Melting ICE.” Donning blue ponchos, they walked in silence in a lap around the perimeter of the building, dropping chunks of ice along the way. In the late September warmth, the group’s path quickly became a dark, rheumy trail.
Almost all in the cortège were members of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith group that stands in solidarity with immigrants facing deportation. Just hours earlier, the gathering had assembled inside Judson Memorial Church, just eight blocks away in Greenwich Village, to prime the ice, chiseling away at three 50-pound blocks over a tarp, while sharing their stories of encounters with the correspondingly named agency.
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“When my brother was deported back to Colombia, he got cancer within three months of being in the country,” explained Mauricio Higuera, a collaborator in the vigil, as he methodically pounded a chisel around the circumference of a large block of ice. “My mother went to go take care of him, and he died months after she arrived. She lost her life four years after to cancer as well. It was all of the stress and the tension that cost them … being incarcerated for being who they are initiates their symbolic death.”
Others followed, including Myrna, 41, whose last name is omitted because of her complicated citizenship status, and her two daughters. After being deported in 2013, Myrna spent three years separated from her children, who are US citizens, while she lived in Veracruz, Mexico. In her absence, New Sanctuary provided support for her family, ultimately working to reunite Myrna with her children in 2016.
“All of us came from a mother, grew up with a mother,” Myrna explained. “Not having her in the house … not having a hug, not having a plate of food on the table, not having someone to take care of you when you are sick. The government doesn’t give us rights that help with social inclusion. Mexicans come here for a better life and they treat you like a rat. It’s immoral.”
With the ice chiseled into chunks on the floor, the New Sanctuary members picked up the pieces that they could and carried them by hand to the Varick Street building. Water dripping down their forearms, fingertips numb, this interaction with the substance of the vigil’s underlying metaphor was an opportunity to viscerally convey their experiences.
“It’s hard to understand through language what it feels like carrying something like the fear of ICE,” Higuera explained, adding that through the human movements of this social practice artwork, he and fellow performance collaborator Michelle Castañeda intended to incite empathy amongst passersby.
“We circle that building so that people around in the neighborhood can see what’s happening there,” Castañeda agreed. “You can see what’s happening in the airports, in raids of businesses, but people are not familiar with the spaces in Manhattan in which people might be part of our community in one second and then be gone the next. The fact that we walk by these spaces every day is something that we want the city to know about.”
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) Immigration Project at Syracuse University, which monitors and aggregates immigration data from various government agencies, the Varick Street Service Processing Center ranks in the top 11 percent nationwide in the number of individuals it transfers to long-term detention and deportation. ICE Community Relations Officer Sonia Thomas confirmed that in the 2016 Fiscal Year, 1,037 individuals were ordered to be deported from the facility. Some left in buses headed toward detention facilities upstate; others were driven to LaGuardia Airport to catch an ICE Air flight toward prisons in Texas and Arizona; still others were placed on flights back to their countries of birth.
This year, in light of a series of executive orders from the Trump administration expanding the scope of immigration enforcement, the number of those ordered deported from the Varick Street Center for immigration-related charges — such as entering the country undocumented or overstaying a visa — has increased by almost 100 percent, comprising roughly two-thirds of the center’s total deportation cases. During the same period, deportations for criminal, national security or terror-related charges has stayed roughly the same, indicating that, in tandem with the immigration enforcement trends of the rest of the country, those ordered deported from the Varick Street Service Processing Center are increasingly non-criminal persons.
According to those in the Trump administration, the impetus for this crackdown on immigration is two-fold, targeting both economic and security concerns. Trump has repeatedly claimed that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs from US workers, while Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been quick to make the violence of street gangs such as MS-13 with ties to Central America the face of the immigration debate. Both men have claimed that at the crux of immigration reform is the need to enforce the law and respond to those who try to circumvent the constitutional order through illegal entry to the US.
Firm-handed immigration responses are not new by any means — more immigrants were deported under the Obama administration than under any other president in US history — but the percentage of civil immigration cases leading to justice involvement has increased dramatically. The Trump administration’s effort at heightened immigration enforcement has led to an 18 percent increase since last year in the number of arrests of US immigrants with criminal convictions, but a 156 percent increase in the number of arrests of US immigrants without criminal convictions.
For Castañeda and other members of the New Sanctuary Coalition who believe in the importance of bearing witness to the mechanisms of the immigration system and standing with those on whom the system wreaks injustice, this rise in civil immigration charges demands action.
“We are all persuaded by the seeming solidity of the law, psychologically trapped inside ICE,” Castañeda explained. “In this sense, the vigils became a fertile metaphor symbolizing our resistance to this psychological state because they show us our power to melt the ice.”
Once the procession of New Sanctuary members had marched around the four blocks surrounding the Varick Street Center — pausing only once to point out the garage doors where ICE buses leave the facility, transporting detainees to long-term detention or deportation — they stopped in front of the building’s main entrance. To the right of the large glass doors and the shield of the Department of Homeland Security, they placed the remaining ice cubes on a thin ledge running at eye level around the building’s eastern façade, and pressed their hands onto the cool, stone wall in front of them.
As the cubes melted, slowly trickling down the walls in thin, weepy streaks, Castañeda and Higuera stood at one end of the line, calling the names of immigrants they knew through New Sanctuary who had come into contact with the Varick Street Center.
“¡Fernanda! ¡Aurelio! ¡Luis! ¡Teresa!” they screamed, pausing after each name, so that it could be echoed by other members down the line. While some of those they called had won their cases in immigration court, liberated until their next check-in, many more had walked out of the Varick Street Center wearing ankle monitors, or had been shuffled out in handcuffs en route to detention centers elsewhere.
“The people who we call out to are people who are in deportation proceedings,” Higuera explained. “The idea is for our bodies, our energies to melt the walls that divide us and interweave our communities. These walls aren’t just the walls on Varick Street. There are the social and technological walls: the discrimination, the bracelets, the curfews and monitoring of social media. And there is the cultural wall of fear of being categorized as an outsider. We are trying to bring together people who have come through sanctuary, people whose family are affected by the process of migration, and weave community.”
At the other end of the line, standing next to her two daughters, Myrna placed her palms on the wall and closed her eyes. Having spent several months in an ICE detention facility in Flores, Arizona, before being flown on an ICE-operated plane back to her hometown in Puebla, Mexico, these efforts to inject warmth and humanity into the deportation process were deeply personal.
“I never thought that I would want to return to a place like this,” Myrna explained of being outside of the Varick Street Center. “These people have taken everything from me, all of my rights. For years, they took my children from me. But I am a woman who is strong. My health is ruined because of all that I’ve been through, but these hands on the wall make me think that we can protect more people from being hurt.”
From a sagging fold in the front of her poncho, Myrna’s older daughter, who is 16, took out several golf ball-sized chunks of ice and placed them on the ledge in front of her. With her right hand on the wall, and her pink backpack still on after school, she hooked her left arm around her mother’s waist in a half hug. According to Myrna, both of her daughters have been in treatment for depression and anxiety since her deportation in 2013.
“This isn’t art for art’s sake. This is life and death,” Higuera explained. “We have to figure out a way to exist in this country despite unwelcome signs…. The migrant community has a wealth of cultural means to share and work to resolve the issues borders present us. All we are asking is for our participation to be recognized and respected as part of the solution so that we can go to school, to work and to live without fear.”