Things That Matter

I Was Held In A Mexican Migrant Detention Center. Here’s What I Learned

As someone who has written about the experiences and challenges faced by migrants and refugees for many years – even having friends and family who have first-hand knowledge – I long assumed that I was well-educated and knowledgeable about what a migrant detention center was like. And I knew it was something that I never wanted to experience.

But during what was supposed to be a fun, weekend escape from Mexico City to the beaches of the Yucatán, I would end up imprisoned inside one of Mexico’s U.S.-inspired migrant detention centers. Obviously, my situation was a unique one since my U.S. citizenship usually keeps me from the fallout of U.S. imperialism and cruel border policies. You can trust that the irony wasn’t lost on me.

As a U.S. citizen, I never thought I could end up inside a migrant detention center.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

I had just wrapped up a fun-filled trip to the beach, but little did I know I was about to have one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. As a journalist who covers immigration and human rights, I now found myself imprisoned inside one of Mexico’s nightmarish migrant detention centers.

As I was about to board a plane from Mérida to Ciudad de Mexico – where I have lived for more than five years – I was apprehended for visa irregularities and loaded into a van bound for a U.S.-built detention center.

At first, I was afraid but also intrigued by the experience that lay ahead.

The slight enthusiasm I had for the chance to see the inner workings of the U.S.-mandated migration regime (from the viewpoint of a writer) quickly began to dissipate, however, when I was informed that I would likely be deported back to the U.S. – a place I hadn’t called home in years.

Of course, from here things went from bad to worse once I realized what a stay in the detention center was actually going to look like. As soon as I arrived, I was stripped of all of my possessions – even ordered to take out my earring, lose the bracelets, and remove my shoelaces. I was assured that this was all for my own “security” but that did little to kill my nerves, even as I was handed a Burger King bag for my first night’s meal.

My nerves got the best of me as I was introduced to my new home – where’d I’d be spending an indefinite amount of time.

Credit: BENJAMIN ALFARO/AFP via Getty Images

As soon as I got a glimpse inside the damp freezing cold detention center, I was overwhelmed with the sense of claustrophobia and gnawing loneliness. My cell was small and shared with a father-son duo who had recently been picked up on their journey from Cuba.

My fear and level of discomfort wasn’t helped by a near-total lack of face masks among the detainees despite ubiquitous coughing. All this went down in the midst of the pandemic. And although I wasn’t already sick, the meals they provided (three a day) almost made you wish I was – so I wouldn’t have to taste them. Though they did do their best to accommodate my vegetarian diet. Then there’s the complete lack of privacy. Whether taking a shower or using the toilet, I had to do it within full view of my cellmates.

Once inside, all I had left to do was wait. I was surrounded by barbed wire walls, under constant supervision, just waiting to hear what my fate will be. Or even waiting for food, phone calls, toilet paper, showers. I met men and women and entire families who had already been detained for over a month – making weekly calls in the hopes that someone would be able to liberate them.

Looking back, the privilege of being a U.S. passport holder afforded me a much different experience than the many others who were detained along with me.

A U.S. passport is frequently described as a sort of ‘get out of fail free card’ by so many and, granted, it does come with a host of privileges that other nationalities could only dream of. By the end of my fourth day, the U.S. consular service was already aware of my situation and working on my case. Though I was warned that I would probably be deported and unable to return to Mexico for at least three years.

I couldn’t afford this option. Since 2016, my entire life was in Mexico. My family, friends, work, possessions – it was all here. The idea of being sent back to a country where I had no home began to take its toll on me and I spent most of my days isolated from the rest of the detainees, sulking in my emotions.

But as I started to learn more about the challenges my fellow cellmates faced, and the situations they had overcome just to end up in detention, I began to appreciate the situation I found myself in. Many detainees had stories that left me feeling grateful for the unlucky situation I was in.

Credit: VICTORIA RAZO/AFP via Getty Images

Many migrants had just endured perilous journeys after fleeing poverty and violence in their own countries – all with the hope of making it to perceived safety in the U.S.

I met a Cuban family of five who had been living in Mérida for a few months before finally attempting to travel to the U.S. when they were stopped by immigration authorities. They had already been in detention several weeks – just blocks from where they had been living peacefully – and were likely to be sent all the way back to Cuba.

I met a Honduran man who fled his country after his two brothers were murdered. Then, I met another Honduran whose father had been killed. I met a Cameroonian woman who told me about her trip through Central America, where she saw countless dead bodies along her journey.

Of course, I was the only U.S. detainee, and my fellow cellmates were as surprised as I was – often joking they thought I must be a spy planted by U.S. authorities. Most of them could hardly understand why I was resisting being sent back to a country they were literally risking their lives to reach, and there was often hysterical laughter at the ironic prospect of being deported to the U.S.

But I wasn’t the only oddball that stuck out within the detention center.

There was also a young woman from Spain, who often argued and shouted with the guards, demanding she be released. Another surprise detainee was a man from France, who had been backpacking through Mexico for two years and was hoping he would get a free flight back to Paris.

While there was an immense feeling of despair among all of us. There were also beautiful moments of humanity that helped make my weeklong stay a bit easier.

Children laughed as they kicked around the one deflated soccer ball, we’d gather mangos from the nearby tree, women would style each other’s hair, and the entire group would randomly break into song with me doing my best to sing along.

Eventually, my experience came to an end when I was miraculously granted freedom, no deportation involved, after one week – thanks not to my homeland but to the compassion of immigration officials. I have a chronic illness and after one week I had ran out of my very important medications. In order to make sure I could get my meds, the authorities released me into the middle of the night and by the next morning, I was back in my own home.

When I was released, the immigration official handling my case joked that I would have plenty to write about; being sure to add: “Make sure you give us five stars. And don’t forget that you cried!” A rather interesting way to sum up my week in detention but not at all wrong.

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