Six months after my husband was deported, I was diagnosed with PTSD. Every sight of law enforcement brought panic, and every night brought recurring nightmares of being trapped behind bars and unable to move, unable to breathe. Privileged to access treatment, I undertook Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a psychotherapy treatment for traumatic memories that revealed the height of my trauma: the moment of my husband’s arrest.
It was May 10, 2007. My NYU graduation was scheduled for 10 a.m.; so was my husband’s check-in with ICE. At the last minute, we left my cap and gown in the closet and went to Federal Plaza. We were applying to adjust his status based on our marriage. After an ICE officer behind a desk told us my husband would not be detained, seven armed officers flooded the room. The officer who told the initial lie then said, “This is happening.” After they took my husband away, I left the building and walked around New York City for two hours, clutching his jacket in my hands.
As I visited him at a privately contracted detention center over the next three months, I bonded with other friends and family members in the waiting room. We said we would not let this happen to us, and we vowed to support each other and tell our stories to anyone who would listen. I published an op-ed about my husband’s detention in a national newspaper. The next day, ICE made a decision on our case: My husband would be deported. Was it an act of retaliation? I will never know.
As for the new friends I had made, we never heard from each other again after our loved ones left detention. I recognize now that the trauma of immigration enforcement — and the fear of speaking out against a system designed to retaliate — silenced us. Some of us lost our homes, our businesses, even our lives. I lost my marriage. We all lost our voices. A decade later, my story is still in pieces.
It is a historian’s job to put pieces of the past back together, and that is why I became one.
I returned to graduate school after my husband’s deportation, determined to uncover the origins of the vast, yet largely hidden immigration detention system in which we found ourselves entangled. How could I make sense of the pieces of our story that caused the most pain: a “civil” arrest militarized, a detention system privatized? How did this system come to render bodies invisible, for profit?
The Roots of Trump’s War on Immigrants
In many ways, Trump’s “war on immigrants” is not new. As the work of both Michelle Alexander and Kelly Lytle Hernández show, the rise of militarized policing and mass incarceration in the United States have deep roots in the racialized social controls of slavery and settler colonialism. Historian Elizabeth Hinton argues these were further fueled by modern liberalism — bipartisan efforts that both Republican and Democratic administrations have built upon. So, too, characterizes the history of immigration enforcement.
Reagan’s “Cold War” on immigrants, however, played a particularly important role in this history. In the early 1980s, Reagan launched a new set of immigration enforcement policies that recast the national security state. Namely, these were: the use of mandatory detention in line with Cold War foreign policy priorities in order to deter migration; globalizing the “war on drugs” through drug and immigrant interdiction programs and border militarization; and the use of private contracting to detain immigrants (a practice that would soon spread throughout the criminal legal system). In effect, these measures fueled the militarization of local law enforcement; enfolded migrants into the criminal legal system; stoked public panic over a combined threat of drugs, immigration and people of color; and introduced a profit motive to drive incarceration numbers skyward. Privatization also adds an additional layer of invisibility to a system long lacking in accountability.
Overcoming the Silencing Effects of Trauma
When I began my research, I discovered that the silencing effects of a system built on fear and retaliation reverberated throughout academia. Scholars in practitioner disciplines associated with being on the front lines — social work, psychology, medicine and public health — are well aware of the traumatic impacts of immigration enforcement. But these effects also have crucial implications for scholars in the humanities.
For one, historians addressing immigration enforcement must confront large gaps in archival records, as historian Mary Rizzo so aptly describes in her attempt to locate the voices of those who protested their detention in the 1990s. The powers making policy have left a larger paper trail, and they control which records are destroyed. If we are not careful, we may end up replicating the narratives and unequal power structures that gave rise to the enforcement system to begin with.
Because of its very nature, trauma is difficult to identify, to talk about and to write about. But the voices of those affected are all around us. Media-makers and academics wield great power in their respective fields by choosing whose voices to center and which topics to research and write on, thereby signaling which issues are priorities for us to address as a society. We must collectively counter the silence, ally with communities that are most impacted, and create new spaces for stories that do not come out as easily or fit into existing containers. Especially if those containers were created by ICE to divide us — to designate “good” from “bad,” or “deserving” versus “undeserving” immigrants — in order to justify the removal of our community members.
Humanities-based approaches to understanding immigration enforcement and humanistic storytelling — whether in narrative, art, poetic, multimedia or other form — offer great possibilities. First-hand accounts can fill gaps in the archives, challenge xenophobic assumptions, bring data to life, and help us better articulate and generate an empathetic understanding of the traumas of immigration enforcement. Most importantly, stories work to heal and empower communities affected by immigration enforcement.
I will end with the words of Sylvester Owino, a friend who spent almost a decade in immigration detention and whose poetry appears in an anthology published by Freedom for Immigrants (formerly CIVIC):
“Writing about the abuses against us was the only way to let it out, slowly, so slowly. It is still coming out. I wonder if it will ever end.”