March 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

The Detained

By Olivia Kate Cerrone
Published: 2017-01-02

The dial tone hung in his ear. He stepped aside for the next man in line. Anel sat across the room with a new group of Latinos. They donned fresh new orange slacks and shirts with 'ICE' printed in thick, black letters across the back. A muddle of Spanish and English traveled between them. Already, Anel had their ear, though they frowned in suspicion. He explained the daily routine and warned against the trickery of the detention officers, who preyed upon those who couldn't read English, fooling them into signing self-deportation documents.

"For a good six months, I met with an immigration lawyer who promised to take my case pro-bono. One day he up and disappeared. No reason for it. Ain't nothing I can do about it either," Anel said.

His words gnawed at Jean, and soon he moved away from them. He went to the guards' station and asked for a request to meet with his deportation officer. His last several applications had gone unanswered, but still he completed another form and passed it through the Plexiglas window without complaint.

They ate dinner in the late afternoon—a small Sloppy Joe concoction of nameless meat and rubbery pasta overrun by a heap of peas. One of the men found a hairnet in the fruit juice container but no one allowed it to curb his appetite. By eight that evening, the men were restless with hunger. Some had no family to wire money into their accounts. Anel convinced a few to pool together what they could and buy snacks from the canteen to share with the newcomers. Jean winced at the expense — a cup of Ramen noodles cost a dollar; a thin bag of chips cost five.

A fingerless man from El Salvador took Imad's bed that night. He'd lost his right extremities to a defective leaf blower while on a landscaping job. Hospital care offered no protection against ICE, so he'd taken his chances with an underground clinic and saved what he could of the hand.

"Una nevera, no?" He gestured with his stump to the ceiling vent, where the air conditioning continued to blast despite the winter nights.

"Yeah, an icebox is a good way to put it." Jean rubbed his palms against the tops of his thighs for warmth. The prison garb was cheap and thin, already fraying at the edges. "My boy Devi told me they keep the cells cold to stop germs from spreading. Who knows if that's true."

Jean pushed again at the small button near the thick metal door to alert the guard that he needed to use the bathroom. There were no toilets inside of the cells, a fact that went against all that he'd seen in TV police dramas and his own brief time incarcerated. He squeezed a sliver of blue soap that left his skin dry, and some tissue paper he kept rationed inside of his pocket. The bathroom wasn't always stocked, though a supply could be found with the nurse if you got her in the right mood.

Outside, the corridor echoed with the heavy slam of prison doors opening and closing, as if to mock his need. The noise strafed at Jean's temples. He punched at the button with his fist, but still the guards ignored him. Eager voices swelled in his ears — the others sat in their bunks and made plans for when they were released. Jean strained to make out what he could of the conversation — his own Spanish, picked up while working on various construction sites, was childlike at best. Some spoke of their children, while others described living again in the fear of another arrest once released.

"Somos ni aquí, ni allá," one of the newcomers said. We're neither here nor there.

The Salvadoran spoke of what awaited if he was deported, how members of the MS-13 gang had it out for him. They'd once pressured him to join, and shot his sister in the head when he refused. His mother never again left the house after that.

Jean listened in silence. His own father was killed for his suspected allegiance to Aristide. He thought of the old man washing himself from a porcelain basin each morning before leaving for work. They never had running water, but his father began each day moving a wet sponge over his armpits and neck. Would the men who killed him be waiting for Jean in Haiti? He forced aside the memory of slow-moving water, and shifted the weight of his restless limbs, his groin burning with pressure.

"Goddamn," he said, and waved a frantic hand at the ceiling camera. Sweat wet the space above his lips. He turned from the others and urinated against the door.

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