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Asylum Seekers Letters Made Public At San Diego State University

A letter written by the asylum-seeker is available at the San Diego State Uni...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A letter written by the asylum-seeker is available at the San Diego State University Library, Feb. 8, 2019.

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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.

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