Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Asylum Seekers Letters Made Public At San Diego State University

A letter written by the asylum-seeker is available at the San Diego State University Library, Feb. 8, 2019.
Nicholas McVicker
A letter written by the asylum-seeker is available at the San Diego State University Library, Feb. 8, 2019.
Asylum Seekers Letters Made Public At San Diego State University
GUESTS: Joanna Brooks, associate vice president for faculty advancement, San Diego State University Ivette Lorona, graduate student, San Diego State University Subscribe to the Midday Edition podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

We are getting an unprecedented look at what detainees are experiencing inside the Otay Mesa detention center. The firsthand accounts written by detainees are part of a new digital archive of letters compiled by San Diego State University and are now available to the public. Each letter sheds a light on what it's like inside immigration detention centers. Joining us is Joanna Brooks associate vice president for faculty advancement at SDL Shu who is also an advocate with detainee allies and event Lorena a graduate student at SDL Shu who has helped translate and digitize the letters. Thank you both for joining us. Thank you for having. Thank you. So Joanna tell us more about how this letter writing project came about last summer. Like many many people listening to this radio program me and my friends and colleagues at us as you were watching horrified as the family separation policy was enforced on migrants seeking asylum and shelter in United States. And we gather together we had a simple house meeting one Sunday afternoon. What can we do. We were trying to find a way to make a positive impact on this situation here. And we found it eventually through writing letters to refugees detained at Otay Mesa and Joanna what do you know about who did. And Joanna what do you know about who the detainees are and where they come from. Well I think it's really important for everyone to know that right now as you and I sit comfortably in this studio just 25 miles southwest of here hundreds and hundreds of people fleeing death threats political violence from Central America from Africa are being held in detention imprisoned most without legal representation some for a year or longer simply because they have sought shelter here in the United States. And the conditions they report are very very discouraging even by detention standards. They are reporting contaminated and rotting food forced labor at a dollar a day as the only way they can get enough money to buy stamps or call their families. They're reporting abuses from guards medical neglect isolation. It's very very troubling. Any vet you've helped translate some of these letters can you tell us who this letter is from and read a bit of it this letter that was translated comes from 20 22 year old Honduran boy he's fleeing from gangs threat. This is just a section of the letter that he wrote to one of the Allies. Your photo made me remember about my family. If only they knew how much I think about them and how much I miss them everyday. This face has been the hardest in my life. You have a beautiful family. What a beautiful photo never separate. And whenever you have a problem always try to fix it as soon as possible. Family is one of the most important things I tell you this as I am away from mine and I have lost three members. You know when you read these words you know a lot of emotions go through your mind I would imagine so many things go through my mind so many emotions. It's even though I started back in September like it's still like a moment of shock knowing that each letter each testimony is unique in its way some letters could be from thanking the allies for being able to be there and show some humanity to them and it can go from reading to graphic content about why they're fleeing from their country. I mean we have letters in this stack right here just from this week of a photographer who was taking pictures of the protests in Caracas against the Maduro regime who was beaten and assaulted and made his way across South America entity Juana seeking shelter. And he has been imprisoned for more than a year. We have letters every week from people from Congo Cameroon Eritrea people who are fleeing from around the world and seeking shelter. These letters are important because they humanize the people that we are holding in detention. Each of them has a family many of them have demonstrated enormous courage in fleeing death threats and fleeing political violence and coming here seeking help. This is from a young woman. This letter she is talking to her ally about how she was separated from her son. This is just an expert of that letter. They have explained to him that they separated us because he's a U.S. citizen but I am not. He thought he was because I didn't love him. Well it was the last thing he asked me when CPS took him. Mommy you don't love me anymore. My sister says he still wakes up screaming for me and he's afraid of police. He screams and hides event. Do you feel connected with the detainees in some way. Yes I think I connect mostly with people who have been separated from their families and I feel like an immigrant as myself. We came to the United States seeking opportunities a second opportunity of life as one of our writers wrote the gift of life. And there's even more from. From people who are actually inside of the detention center in what conditions are like inside there. Right. We have received many letters documenting that people go to bed hungry every night inside because the food provided is insufficient or contaminated. One woman wrote us and told us the guard himself said the food was not fit for dogs. We have letters reporting wage theft. We have letters reporting a worry that they're not able to mail us that mail is not getting through that they're being isolated and we know Attorney General have our best Sara has been assigned by the California state legislature to file a report March 1st and we're hoping he will read these letters and read some of the information we've collected because no one else is getting inside. And Joanna we should mention core civic the company that runs the Otay Mesa detention center has said it's been responsive to the needs of detainees. Where are some of the detainees you've corresponded with today. Many people are still in detention. Many there are people who've been in detention more than a year. More than a year and a half. Some folks are getting asylum which is good. But the vast majority remain in detention or have been deported. When you look at all these letters you've received what do you think they represent. Well I have touched just about every one of the 400 plus letters that's come in through detainee allies into this collection and it has changed my life and has changed my view of the country I live in. And my understanding of our moment in history we are encouraged not to see these people. They are put in a concrete box at the border. And I wake up every day knowing they are still there. And I hope others will remember every day we wake up there are migrants and asylum seekers who we are keeping in prison cells rather than offering know legal support and an a welcome. And that's what this collection means to me it means lifting up the voices and stories of people that are supposed to be made invisible. And that's not a safe place for a human being to be. And I'm just very grateful for the work of students like you vet and all of the faculty researchers at San Diego State and the library for its courage and wisdom in preserving this collection of testimony and this knowledge so that now we can look at ourselves and who we are and in the future we can assess who we were in this moment and how history will judge us. And for those who want to read these letters for themselves where can they go to get more information please visit the SDC Library Web site. It can connect to you. You'll find a way to get into the SD you unbound feature to our digital archive. You can also access detainee allies that work. I've been speaking with Joanna Brooks associate vice president for faculty advancement at San Diego State University and Yvette La Rona a graduate student at SDL issue who has helped translate and digitize the letters. Thank you both for joining us. Thank you.

Hundreds of letters written by asylum seekers in a privately run detention center in Otay Mesa are available to the public in a new San Diego State University library archive.

The letters offer an unprecedented look at the stories of asylum seekers locked up by the U.S. government and a detention company called CoreCivic, often for months without access to the outside world.

"Your words have animated my life, thank you for everything, I send you many kisses, a rain of hugs and a deluge of blessings. Thank you for everything, thank you for being my family," wrote a 19-year-old man from El Salvador to a volunteer named Kimberly.


He described himself as "studious and hard-working," writing that he specialized in accounting and business administration but could not stay in his country because of the violence.

"I wish the world knew that migrants are the hope of our families, the hope of our countries, the hope of a better society, the hope of a better world ... We are not what President Trump thinks," he wrote.

San Diego State University volunteers sent letters to the detainees, and offered funds for postage stamps to write back. Joanna Brooks said she helped start the project to give asylum-seekers solace and to shine a light on their stories.

"I would like everyone to read these letters and see the humanity of people who have been dehumanized in this moment in our political culture," Brooks said. "We are not solving any problems here. We are facing a tremendous refugee crisis. But we can offer them is that human contact, a friendly word, a letter, something warm."

Brooks read from one of the letters, written by a 23-year-old man from Eritrea:


“I have no idea what is ahead for me, what is my future. I tell you what will happen if they return me to Eritrea, they will put me in prison and they will kill me.”

She said many of the asylum-seekers expressed gratitude for the letters. Some sent gifts they made in the detention center, such as a dreamcatcher made from plastic and dental floss.

“This represents a person who is a creative, courageous human being who is detained, held in prison because he was fleeing death threats and torture," Brooks said.

The letters from more than 200 detainees are being digitized, and are available for viewing online. Kate Swanson of the university said volunteers read, translated, transcribed and analyzed the letters for a report about conditions inside the center.

They found complaints about the food, medical neglect, and forced labor. The university sent a copy of the report to the California Attorney General, lawmakers and Homeland Security.

Swanson said she hopes the letters shine a light on immigration detention centers that otherwise lack transparency.

"These letters are now open for anybody to read them and find out about the conditions in this privately-run detention center so they can get in this invisible concrete box and hear their thoughts firsthand," Swanson said.