I am a visitor. I visit young men who are in the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, NJ because they are undocumented. These men are many things. They are jokesters; they are serious. They are family men; they have been abandoned. They are men of faith; they are lost. They are hard working; they are looking for jobs. They are from many backgrounds. Some are artists, some laborers, others are cooks. Some came here when they were thirteen, five, or only one year old; others when they were in their twenties. Some were escaping gang violence in their homelands; others were looking for an education, a home, a place that would value them as individuals, not just faceless laborers. They are seekers. All of them. They know there is more to this world than grinding poverty, more than waking up hungry and exhausted. So they strike out to seek a better life for themselves, for their families. They are daring, adventuresome. They face danger, abuse, and death itself along the way because they believe so strongly that they are destined to experience more than the low ceiling of possibilities afforded to them by their countries of origin.
There is one thing these men are not. They are not criminals. They are not criminals to want a better life. To want freedom from violence and poverty. To want more for themselves and their children, or their future children. They do not enter the US illegally because they don’t care about our laws. They enter in the only way they see open to them; the system for legal entry is skewed in the favor of those who have money, those most unlike themselves. This act is not criminal in nature. It is an act of civil disobedience. Yet, they are arrested, given an orange jump suit with the word PRISONER stenciled on the back, and put in county jails, private prisons and detentions centers all across this country.
Our tax money goes to paying for this unnecessary action, to the tune of over two billion dollars a year. Since detentions centers are filled to the brim, the federal government pays county jails and private prisons between $122.00 and $166.00 per day, per man, to house these detainees. That’s why the private prison industry is one of the fastest growing businesses in the country. Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group are among the largest. In return, institutions give the detainees exorbitant phone rates, crowded conditions and food that is nearly inedible. Some detainees are given the opportunity to work, and are paid $1.00 per day to clean the kitchen, toilets and showers. They are grateful for this work, as $7.00 per week can purchase seven cups of soup or seven teabags from the commissary.
The man I am currently visiting has lost 40 lbs. in 15 months. He told me that his dorm staged a hunger strike in December to protest the quality and the paucity of food in the Bergen County, NJ facility. Sixty-six men participated, but most only lasted 18 hours. Two managed 36 hours, and two more 48 hours. The jail did not respond to their efforts.
Some are arrested for littering; some for jaywalking, and some are arrested on their construction jobs while buying lunch from the food truck that comes to the job site every day. And, yes—I’ll say it—they are arrested for the way they look, for the color of their skin, and the accents with which they speak. They are being targeted because ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) currently has a quota of 400,000 deportations per year.
So they sit in prison, these workers, these sons and brothers and fathers, for months and months on end. I have not even mentioned the women – the daughters, the mothers, the aunts and sisters who are housed separately. Their families are forcefully taken from them. They have no rights, because they are not citizens. And we refuse to give them a path to citizenship even if they have been living here ten, fifteen, or thirty years, because of how they got here. They want to pay taxes. They want to help build this country’s economy. They feel that they are Americans in every sense but the paperwork. They just want to live free of fear and poverty. Just like you. Just like me. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why we won’t let them.