Queer In Immigration Detention

There I stood in South Louisiana Correctional Center, hundreds of miles away from my home in sunny California. Immigration detention means the end of the line for most undocumented immigrants. But I was not worried when or if I would be released. In the first place, I went in there on purpose. I also knew there were people organizing to get me out, including Dreamactivist.org, Immigrant Youth Coalition, and people from all over the country. It was part of a "silent action" challenging the Obama administration's immigration policy, which allegedly does not detain undocumented persons without criminal records. But there I was.

After dozens of civil disobedience actions, we learned that Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not detain us during public events. We would simply get arrested and go undercover pretending to be the type of immigrant that they usually detain, and not the ones who know their rights and have connections to advocacy groups. But most importantly, we pretended to be afraid.

My home for the next 10 days would now be "Wolf 1," a pod with a dozen grown men from different parts of Latin America. I knew it wasn't going to be easy to adjust but I felt okay about it. I was there because I needed to organize and help them out in any way I could. We created a team of a couple other detainees that were ready to organize a hunger strike. We weren't sure exactly how or when it would happen, but we knew we needed a number of issues to focus our efforts around. In the meantime we began to take stories of people who were detained and connected them to their families and immigration attorneys. We took on deportation cases for those that can be won, like people who have been here for more than ten years, have citizen children, no criminal record and even DREAM Act eligible youth. But there was always a splinter in my mind, something that always told me to be careful. Although I was detained with a friend who supported me, I knew he could never understand fully what I felt, and much less what I was thinking. Looking at all the sweating men exercising and running by me only made it harder to ignore. There was Jose from Honduras; he was a father of three and a super nice guy with hazel eyes. He was caught driving without a license, and "Secure Communities" kicked in when he was booked. He was debating whether or not to sign a voluntary removal to get to his family as soon as possible.

One day, I began to think that I maybe I could tell the guys the truth -- that they wouldn't see a problem, since I had gotten to know them and they trusted me. I was wrong! Dead wrong. As we walked back to our pod after lunch, I noticed two other men just like me on the other side of the fence. I felt relief, and I was glad to know that I was not alone. But then the taunting began. They were mocked, whistled at, and harassed by the other detainees. They were called names
like, "putitas," 'maricones," "jotitas," etc., pretty much different ways of saying faggots. I was shocked at first, and then I became sad. It took me to a place I had not been to in a long time. It felt like I was in elementary school or middle school again. I was forced to mask my identity with a tough exterior, and had to be careful of what I said and did.

We only saw them when they walked by on their way to their pod, and every time they were ridiculed with enthusiasm by detainees. Their gender expression was more "feminine" than mine. They were openly queer, and so they became targets. Most people never realized, and therefore didn't make fun of me or hit me. They actually assumed I was just like them.

A few days later, I was transferred to "Wolf 2," an adjacent pod where the two queer men, along with seventy other men were housed. I was afraid. For all of the times I claimed to be undocumented and unafraid, I was out of my element. But I saw one of the Queer guys walk by 70 beds with his head held up high, with such energy and pride, and it made me feel so ashamed. Ashamed that I could not do what he did, to be out and proud in a place where everyday there was someone harassing you and trying to put you down.

While watching television with my friend, he asked, "How can you not like girls?" I quickly became infuriated and thought, "How could I be asked that by a friend? How could he assume that liking women was normal?" The worst part was that it came from a someone I knew. I responded with a simple, "are we really going to have this conversation right now?" and turned away. After a few awkward minutes I stood up and jumped into my bunk bed and went to sleep. I remember thinking, "I need strength, I need someone like Jesus..." Not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Barrios, a friend and an Undocu-queer, who attempted a silent action as well. I think it was the only time I wished for one of my friends to be in detention.

Everyday was a fight against depression and some days all I could do was sleep. I was so disappointed with myself. It wasn't my friend's fault that he would say something so offensive to me, the fault was all mine. It's my responsibility as an undocumented, queer man to educate others whenever possible, so that people might become more aware and conscious of homophobia.

I was playing scenarios in my head of how I would tell my cell mates. I knew that if I were to be asked, I would not deny it. So it was only a matter of time, and I would rather do it on my own terms. Before I could come out, my time was cut short. I was rushed out of the detention center because they found out we were organizers.

I was not the courageous person everyone thought I was, or am supposed to be. I left the detention center with a valuable lesson in my own privilege. At least I am no longer afraid of deportation, and cannot wait for my check in with ICE in March.