Elisabeth’s Letters from Batavia: Immigration Detention and Injustice

by Alice Kenny //

Elisabeth, a pseudonym, is a thirty-year-old woman who has been held in the Buffalo (Batavia) Federal Detention Facility for nearly two years. She fled her home country of El Salvador after experiencing extreme violence and trauma and came to the United States seeking asylum. She was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for illegally entering the country. 

Elisabeth began communication with Cornell University professor Jane Juffer in 2019. Their correspondence sheds light on the realities and the horrors of the conditions of immigration detention in the United States. Elisabeth’s letters often relate to the day-to-day struggles and injustices many migrants and refugees face from within the ICE detention system. She wants her story to be shared so that more people know about the terrible things that happen in immigration detention in the US.

Most Americans are aware that the US, like many countries, maintains immigration law that restricts and controls entrance and migration into the country. Immigration law regulates who is allowed in, how long they can stay, and what rights they have. While this perspective is accurate, it is far from the whole picture.

It can be incredibly difficult to keep track of where someone is, which makes it hard for family, friends, and advocates to stay in touch as well as limiting access to legal counsel.

In 2019 alone, ICE detained 500,000 people. That’s half a million people detained in facilities outside of the criminal justice system with conditions that receive minimal publicity. Part of the reason why this system has been able to operate with so much secrecy is due to a spatial politics of isolation. Federal immigration detention facilities are often located in isolated or rural areas, which means you’ve probably never seen one unless you happen to live nearby or had a reason to visit. Refugees, like Elisabeth, who are arrested on the Southern border of the United States may be moved around to different facilities without notice. It can be incredibly difficult to keep track of where someone is, which makes it hard for family, friends, and advocates to stay in touch as well as limiting access to legal counsel. Of the hundreds of thousands of people detained by ICE, over 70% are held in private prison facilities.

The Buffalo Federal Detention Facility where Elisabeth is held is located in Batavia, New York – 45 minutes from Buffalo, NY and about 2 hours from Ithaca, NY. Elisabeth is housed with approximately a dozen other women, most of whom also do not speak English. The remainder of the facility is dedicated to male migrants. Although I have lived in Ithaca for three years, I first heard about the facility in Batavia this fall. Through my work with the organization Justice for Migrant Families, I learned more about the immigrants detained just a couple of hours away from where I had been studying.

I have been fortunate to speak to Elisabeth directly and learn a little bit about her story. Yet, however long I listen to her discuss what her life is like in detention⁠—her struggles, her small joys, the injustices and frustrations she faces with immigration law, the racist guards, the discrimination, homophobia, fear, hopelessness, and depression⁠—I cannot convey her voice as well as she can. Thus, I am providing a selection of Elisabeth’s “letter from Batavia” that I hope will do justice to her experience, which mirrors the experiences of many others across the country, as she fights against the oppressive force of immigration detention.

Each of these letters was written by Elisabeth in Spanish and translated diligently into English. These are her words, her experiences.

April 19, 2020

Hello! How are you, my dear friend and your beautiful family. Here, I am preoccupied with everything that is happening around the coronavirus. It is getting very ugly. They say nine men have been infected with the virus.

The worst thing is that we don’t have soap. The truth is there is nothing to clean with, no rags or anything. They have moved those who are infected to a unit in front of us. We are very worried. Thanks to God, I have the soap that I bought from commissary with the money you gave me.

The officials treat us as if we are the ones who are infected. I feel as if I can do nothing. I cannot talk to them and tell them, don’t treat us like animals. We’re not the ones who are coming and going. They are actually the ones who are more likely to infect us than us to infect them. Plus, various officials go to the other units — C1, C2, C3, B2, etc.

Sometimes, I feel like I can’t stand to listen to any of the news anymore, or the official notices. I pray to God that he takes care of me and protects me from everything bad that is happening. I look out the window and see the lights of the gasoline station, the lights of some cars, trucks, and trailers. I think they are trailers because they are large. I ask God to let me leave this place so that I can know your country, my friend.

Note: The drawings featured in this article were created by Elisabeth during her detainment in the Buffalo Federal Detention Center. 

April 25, 2020

Hi Juanita! How are you? I hope this letter finds you well, at the side of your beautiful family.

Today, I did not want to eat any food. At 3:15 PM, they took me to medical and asked me if I was going on a hunger strike. I told them, never have I said I was going on a hunger strike, but that due to everything that has happened, I am just not hungry. I don’t have the strength to eat.

I feel like if I eat, I am going to get sick. The woman told me that if I don’t eat dinner today, they are going to send me to the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit) and take away my commissary and not let me buy anything more. I told them, that’s OK, but I will not eat until I leave this place. She said to me, oh you want to say that you are not going to eat so that they release you? I said, no, that’s not what I said. It’s just that I cannot eat because I have endured so much bullying here, and it has taken away my appetite.

If they take away my commissary, they take away my commissary. If they are going to punish me and put me in SHU, that’s OK. Let them do what they want to me psychologically, because they have already killed me. If they put me in SHU, I will just sicken and die more quickly. Whatever happens with my health and life, it will be the responsibility of the ICE officials.

August 9, 2020

It is 12:45 PM. I cannot sleep. I’m listening to music to try to make myself feel better because I feel very bad. My self-esteem is very low and I don’t know how to feel better. I decided to try writing, to try to express a little of how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. With tears in my eyes, I think my life no longer has any meaning. I’m thinking of hurting myself so that I no longer have to feel what I’m feeling. A short time ago, I began to scratch myself and did not stop until I saw blood. I feel like I want to hurt myself some more. I know this isn’t good, though, and that’s why I started to write you.

I am thinking about the people in the world I love most. But that does not make me feel better because I had to leave my home because my life was in danger. I had to leave my country because they wanted to kill me. I had to leave my mother, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, my friends. I had to leave everything to save my life. And here, I feel like a criminal, like garbage, like I have been thrown away.

I can’t take it any longer, how the officials treat me like garbage. I do not understand what I’m doing to make the officials talk in such an ugly way to me, why they treat me so badly. The official who was here from 4 PM until 12 PM, I went at 10:25 PM to ask for a rag to clean the table. She was talking on the phone and spoke to me very loudly, yelling at me. I said, what’s wrong, and she just yelled at me again, in English, so I did not understand. Alejandra (a pseudonym) was cleaning the bathroom above. She came running to see what was happening, as did other women.

They all came by to see what was causing the official to yell so loudly. Some of the women, though, started laughing at me, maybe because I could not understand what they were saying. They started talking to the guard and she just laughed with them. Then one of the women walked past my bed, with a big smile on her face, and said something to me, I don’t know what.

Today, I am going to walk around the yard. I will walk for one hour, and I hope that by doing so, I can relieve a little of the stress I feel here. Maybe I will stop thinking about being here and I will try to imagine myself in my country, doing things that I like to do. Maybe that will give me the strength to go on

November 13, 2020

Hola Juanita!

First, let me say, I am very happy because I spoke today with your students. I like it when they ask me questions because they look so enthusiastic. I do get nervous sometimes. With all due respect, I would also like to say that you look very beautiful when you’re teaching!

After I finished the video call with you, I went to Xiomara’s room. It was about 4 PM. The official Bordonaro began to yell. We didn’t get up, and she came into the room, yelling at us to go out and put the chairs up. I said, “no,” and Xiomara said the same. Then the official Bordonaro said to turn off the televisions. We said, “Go ahead and turn them off, we are not going to work.” Abi told the official what we had said because the official doesn’t speak Spanish.

She was furious. She went to her book and then yelled out my number: 376. I was scared. I got up and said to Abi, “Ask the official what she is saying to me.” Abi did, and then said, “The official is telling you to come out of your room, you are being written up because you are not helping with the work. “Then she said, “Go back to your room and stay there. You do not have permission to leave your room.” She just kept yelling at me, and I said, “Don’t yell.”

On Sunday, Xiomara and I were in the bathroom. Xiomara left and I stayed, brushing my teeth, when I heard the official, yelling very loudly, “Elisabeth!” I opened the curtain with my brush in my hand and answered, “What is going on?” I didn’t understand what she told me, and I went to wash my hands and finish brushing my teeth. I ran out when I heard my radio playing. My radio has an alarm that goes off at 6:45 AM and the official was yelling at me in English to turn it off.

I went to get breakfast and I told Xiomara, “That guard wants to hurt me.” Xiomara went to her room and I went to mine. I just laid in my bed and cried. I thought, “Other women have alarms that go off, and they don’t get yelled at.” Also, why does no one pay attention to the guard who works from midnight to 8 AM? This official turns on the television at five minutes before 6. He turns up the volume very loud and I cannot sleep. Even when I have a headache, I don’t say anything.

I think about my family, my friends, and how I would like to live with you and your family, to get to know you better and to get to know your family.

Things are so stressful here. I feel like I cannot take it any longer. If I do not work, they are not going to permit me to use the tablets, the microwave, the video chats. For this reason, I cannot stop working completely, but I can’t take the pressure anymore.

Right now, I am trying to think about what I want to do when I leave this nightmare. I think about my family, my friends, and how I would like to live with you and your family, to get to know you better and to get to know your family. I want to work to help my mother. I want to realize all my dreams. If God is willing, this can still happen.

I love you forever, Juanita!

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