Detained in America: Artists Amplify Voices of Donald Trump’s Favorite Targets
Lilian Oliva Bardales penned her suicide note while housed in Karnes County Residential Center, a jail for undocumented immigrants in San Antonio. The 19-year-old, who had escaped her native Honduras and come to the United States in search of a better life, wrote the letter in June to show center officials how it felt to be confined there for eight months.
“I come here so this country can help me but here you’ve been killing me little by little with punishment and lies in prison when I haven’t committed any crime,” Oliva Bardales wrote. “Maybe you are not fathers or mothers to understand the reasons and the suffering that we live in this place together with our children. You would not like to be locked up in a place like this the way we are here suffering with our children.”
Little did she know that her cry for help would soon be turned into a work of art.
Oliva Bardales’ suicide attempt was unsuccessful, and she was subsequently deported. But her written experience, and that of other detained immigrant women, has inspired a group of 15 artists from across the U.S. to transform such letters into illustrations. Through their project, “Visions From the Inside,” the artists are raising awareness of the inhumane treatment experienced by the thousands of immigrant families and children placed in detention centers across the nation.
It’s estimated that 62,848 families and 62,977 unaccompanied migrant children were apprehended by ICE agents or other law enforcement officers along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, according to the United States Border Patrol. Many of the immigrants travelled through Mexico from countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, places experiencing some of the highest rates of violence in the world. Honduras is known as the world’s murder capital; Guatemala is fourth in homicides, and El Salvador is fifth.
Multimedia expert and activist Iris Rodriguez from End Family Detention—an advocate group for those living in detention centers—began uploading the letters of immigrants to her site. A pro bono lawyer representing the clients who wrote the letters had reached out to Rodriguez in a desperate attempt to inspire immediate action on the issue.
One day this summer when Rodriguez was scrolling through her Facebook feed, she saw the director of the artist advocacy group CultureStrike, Favianna Rodriguez, had posted about wanting to visit Karnes. The website designer responded by linking the letters from the End Family Detention site, and from there, the two connected to help form “Visions From the Inside.”
“As an indigenous woman from Texas, I see these mothers as my sisters of the corn,” Rodriguez told TakePart. “This [project] is a radical act of defiance that speaks directly to the generations-long campaign of silencing our voices.”
Many of the stories that Rodriguez read detailed multiple accounts of sexual assault, poor sanitary conditions, and a lack of medical attention given to families, including young children and babies. “Almost all of the babies get sick with colds or infections,” a woman named Rebeca Paulina wrote in her letter. “A baby has to have a temperature of 104 before they will give you [cough] syrup or acetaminophen.”
In September 2014, it was reported that a seven-year-old migrant child with cancer was denied medical treatment for her brain tumor while incarcerated at Karnes. The backlash from media and immigration activists prompted federal officials to let the girl undergo brain surgery and chemotherapy, but both were deemed unsuccessful in treating the tumor.
The illustrations were posted to the project’s Tumblr page between July 27 and Aug. 14. Several of the artists have a personal tie to immigration, including Micah Bazant, a first-generation U.S. citizen whose family escaped the Nazi regime, and Fidencio Martinez, who was detained as a seven-year-old after trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border with his mother.
While the project aims at humanizing and empowering the individuals affected by immigration enforcement in America, the debate over immigration continues to polarize the country. In June, Donald Trump told supporters that Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”
Trump was named as the inspiration for a hate crime committed in Boston on Wednesday after two brothers attacked a homeless Hispanic man. When arrested, one brother told police, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”
“I will say the people that are following me are very passionate…they want this country to be great again,” Trump told The Boston Herald in response to the crime.
However, Trump and those in favor of deportation are in the minority. An estimated 62 percent of U.S. residents support a bill that would allow immigrants to become citizens, according to a June 2014 poll by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute. Another 17 percent of poll respondents said undocumented immigrants should be granted legal residency.
Meanwhile, with groups like End Family Detention and CultureStrike working to visually represent the experiences of migrant families, there’s still hope that these women and children can find asylum, even if for now it’s solely through art.