By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier
In my recent columns a theme has emerged: how ICE, Border Patrol and other Homeland Security agencies have been criminalizing the immigrant population, from raids in Iowa’s meatpacking plants to “Operation Streamline” in Brownsville.
Yesterday I received a call from a colleague of mine, Caren Smith. She wondered if I would be interested in another little story about our bureaucratic, mean-spirited, governmental operations. “Surely,” I said.
Ms. Smith, who is also the new president of the Unitarian Universalist Church in San Juan, got an email request from a Unitarian in Europe: Could someone contact a young fellow who is being held unfairly? He is in a Raymondville, Texas detention center, run by ICE (Immigration/Customs Enforcement). I interviewed Ms. Smith.
Nick Braune: Yesterday you mentioned that this young fellow from Europe is an artist, travelling around the country to network with fellow artists.
Caren Smith: Yes, his name is Dutch [not his real name], and he’s a 26-year-old who came here to travel and learn more about independent film-making. His visa had expired recently and he was intending to renew it when he was picked up in western Texas and shuttled to Raymondville early in May. Dutch was actually waiting for a check from home, as I understand it, to pay the fee to extend the visa. He was on his way to a youth hostel in New Mexico.
Dutch has been incarcerated now — excuse me, they use the word “detained” — since that time. Those of us at the church did not know him — we only got wind of his presence in Raymondville from the Unitarian overseas who emailed me — but our group wanted to help, so off we went from the church trying to at the least support this young man through visits.
Braune: I have protested outside that Raymondville (Willacy County) center several times, and last year there was a tornado of bad publicity about it: spoiled food, mismanagement, financial shenanigans, etc. But I’ve never been inside — what’s it like?
Smith: The visitation environment is utterly ridiculous: Dutch was kept behind a glass wall that holds a malfunctioning microphone — it all looks like something out of a black-and-white film noir — you expect Edward G. Robinson to appear any minute.
Braune: The glass wall separating visitors is more evidence that Homeland Security is off kilter. When someone is out of compliance on their visa, it has always been a civil offence not a criminal offence. These detention centers — Raymondville’s holds two or three thousand people at a time — are not for convicted criminals or even accused criminals awaiting trial.
I remember the 1960s and ’70s, when there used to be thousands of European young people traveling around the country. One would see them at tourist places and universities. Now apparently they are treated as criminals.
Smith: Yes, and it has really depressed Dutch, of course. He told us that when they took him to the airport, ICE officers had him handcuffed and foot-shackled. He had a visa, remember, and was simply late renewing it. He wasn’t arrested for assault or accused of stealing something. He felt totally humiliated.
My son, a Galveston Police Detective, once transported a murderer from Pennsylvania back to Texas for arraignment, and he did not shackle him in the airport. Trying not to draw attention to the convict, they purchased a sweat-suit top with a front pocket where he could hide the fact that he was handcuffed. This protected their mission from the press, the general public, and so forth, and the arrested party was respected as a human being.
Braune: Any other signs of mean-spiritedness?
Smith: Yes. Thanks for letting me vent. First, Dutch is discouraged and was supposed to have been sent home on June 18th — he has a ticket — but they have postponed it until they can have a marshal available to escort him.
Second, Dutch’s mother in Europe has been worried about his psychological state — he is depressed and had a brother who committed suicide. Our fellowship includes one of the Valley’s finest psychologists, who asked to visit Dutch, but the detention center has been stalling his visit. Why?
Third, despite filling out the proper forms, Dutch has not been to the library — nothing to read for six weeks — nor has he seen the chaplain.
Fourth, we saw a sign, as we entered the Raymondville center, warning people not to come in if they were susceptible to chickenpox. (Exposure to chickenpox can severely affect the unborn.) We saw several pregnant women visitors, and we’ve heard that pregnant women are detained there.
Braune: Thank you. And I applaud your activist church group.