One of the first things Joe Biden did as president was to issue a deportation moratorium. It was a bold move but quickly struck down by a federal judge even after it was unclear whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would comply with the moratorium at all. While the block on deportations didn’t last, the administration’s gambit looked like it could be a story of two steps forward and one step back — or, as some call it, progress.
That came after years of watching then-president Donald Trump not just demonize migrants but also witnessing his draconian political moves against them, like his administration’s zero-tolerance policy that sparked the 2018 family separation crisis. That crisis lingered past the end of his presidency for thousands of children, even as migrants who spoke with Teen Vogue say the broader immigration enforcement apparatus is still separating families.
Biden’s move seemed so bold because as he took office questions remained about whether the new president could address the damage done the last time he was in the White House, as VP to President Barack Obama, who was decried by some as the “deporter in chief” for his unprecedented use of the deportation regime. Biden has acknowledged that the Obama administration’s use of deportation was a “big mistake,” but the fact that Trump polarized the issue gave it a new sense of urgency with Democrats not only returning to the White House but also holding slim majorities in Congress.
Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, told Teen Vogue in an interview that there’s a sense of deja vu between the Obama and Biden administrations when it comes to migrant issues. While early moves by the White House were impressive, Shah says the administration’s commitment to prioritizing migrant detention reform needs to be clear, as ICE abolition has been a movement demand for years.
As part of an effort to keep pressure on the administration and their congressional allies, Detention Watch Network staged an artistic protest outside the White House on July 22, displaying portraits by artist Angelica Frausto of migrants whose stories they feel are emblematic of how the U.S. immigration system can produce more hardship than justice. Their demand? Free them all.
Teen Vogue got the chance to ask several of the migrants in the portraits about their experience with ICE detention and what message they have for the president and his administration. Throughout their answers, themes emerge. They spoke to the notion that migration is natural. And nearly all of them described detention as dehumanizing and a practice that is actively separating families like theirs. They all called on lawmakers to take action to end it.
“Immigration detention was the most painful, desperate, and dark period in my life,” Berto Hernandez, a 32-year-old who lives in California, told Teen Vogue, describing bad conditions and treatment and saying their queer identity played a factor. On one particularly bad day in detention, Hernandez remembers, “having this anguish and overwhelming sadness because I could no longer bear to be in ICE custody.… My humanity was reduced to a case number.”
Karim Golding, a 36-year-old who lives in New York City, said his experience with detention showed him that in the U.S., immigrants are treated as if they’re “subhuman.”
For some who’ve been detained, the effects can linger. Ckatalella Letona, an Indigenous trans woman originally from Guatemala, told Teen Vogue that her experience in detention exposed her to terrors that she said left her with a “horrible aftermath” of “psychological trauma.”
Sithy Bin, a 40-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, told Teen Vogue that his detention by ICE began almost immediately after a 15-year incarceration. Instead of being able to rejoin the outside world, he said he was caged again. “I had paid my debt to society. And upon my release, instead of being reunited with my family, with my children, and grandchildren, I faced double punishment, and was detained,” Bin said. “All the hope and excitement about returning to society and making amends for my past and being reunited with my family had gone out the window on the day of my release from prison.”
Bin was released last year with an ankle monitor by court order due to COVID-19 conditions at the center where he was detained. He also described the dehumanizing detention conditions, seeing them as a call to action.
“We should end detention now because not only is it inhuman the way detention is holding people, but it breaks the family apart, it brings trauma to the detainee and their family members,” he said. “I plead with this administration. Please make decisions that will be the model for other nations to admire and follow.”
Johannes Favi is 34, lives in Indianapolis, and came to the U.S. from the West African nation of Benin in 2013. When he was locked up, he also saw the tragic impact of migrant detention. “Many people detained with me broke down mentally,” Favi said, as he described the mental anguish detained migrants face and the difficulties they have coping. “Those months were nothing less than torture for me. I saw many things in immigration detention I never thought I would see,” he added.
Interviewees said that migration is a natural fact of human existence. Hernandez said, “Migration is a natural thing that happens and people are being punished for trying to look for a better life.” Letona called it a “human right.”
“People often migrate from one region of the world to the other seeking a better life,” Favi told Teen Vogue. “It is very sad to see our taxpayer dollars used to jail and separate a child from his parents. Immigrant detention needs to be abolished. There is no fix for a system that was designed to tear apart families and terrorize members of our communities.”
“Asking for closure of an ICE detention center is not enough,” he continued. “Let's be clear. Black and brown people are the majority of the targets of ICE raids in our communities. Systemic racism is the core problem we need to address today. Detention should not be a solution to fix decades of mishandling by a broken immigration system. Those in detention are human beings just like us. By separating them [from family members], the system is willingly breaking the core structure of these families.”
“Detention is punitive and it will never be the solution for a civil matter like immigration,” Favi added. “Immigrants should be permitted to live in the safety of their homes and communities while navigating their court proceedings. Every human deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their origin.”
When asked if they have a message for the president, Hernandez said, “Do what’s right and humane and shut down these detention centers.… The ICE detention centers are killing us!”
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: How to Shut Down ICE Detention in Your Community, a Detention Watch Network Guide