With no mattress or blanket, three sisters and one of their children huddled together to try to keep themselves warm amidst the relentless coldness of a Customs and Border facility holding cell. One woman reportedly ended up with chapped lips that split, while the rest of her family’s fingers turned blue. For many undocumented folks who arrive in the United States, these holding cells – commonly known as hieleras – are one of their first encounters with the country’s immigration system. And while the media and immigrant communities have detailed how cruel these hieleras are, immigration official continue to subject people to these harsh conditions. At SXSW, which brings thousands of visitors to Austin, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) launched a campaign that aims to pressure Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to shut down hieleras once and for all.
Activists – who have long condemned these ice boxes – say hieleras are a tactic to deter people from entering the United States. “The treatment that goes on within these places is very inhumane, especially to the children,” says Ana Maria Rea, RAICES’ education and community outreach specialist. “The children get sick coming out of these places, children get sick in these places, because it’s so cold.”
At the center of RAICES’ campaign is a hielera it has re-created. In a 8-by-20-foot storage pod with sub-freezing temperatures, the group plays an audio story of a client who spent time in an ice box.
“The reason why we chose this was because we really wanted the public to be aware of the situation that immigrants endure when they first come in here when they’re seeking our protection and the government receives them with mistreatment and punishment that they do not deserve,” Rea adds.
Accompanying the hielera is a mural – created by Yocelyn Riojas, Jerry Silguero, and other members of the community – that reads “Asylum is a human right.” Both Riojas and Silguero created proposals for the project. “When I applied to do this, I came up with the concept to create this mural celebrating the people,” Riojas says. “We intended the mural to humanize the topic of asylum and showing that the community members of the migrant community are diverse and are not limited to the stereotype of just being Latino. These are all people with stories, families and reasons for coming here and a purpose. In front of this mural, we’re kind of creating this interactive experience by having this tall wire mesh fence in front of it.”
The chain-link fence, which people are invited to write messages on, represents one of the hurdles immigrants face. The proper way to request asylum is to ask at a port of entry, but as Rep. Nanette Barragán recently explained to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, this doesn’t always happen. Barragán was at the border this past weekend when she saw an Honduran man attempt to apply for asylum. “He was already at the turnstile at the PedWest entry, and the agent said, ‘Sir, unless you have a visa, you need to leave. You need to go away.’”
Originally, Silguero also wanted to create a mural, but since first being contacted for the project in December, things have evolved. Eventually, he created sculptures of invisible children.
“They are transparent because it alludes to the idea that these children are invisible to the public,” Silguero says. “Nobody really knows who they are. We know that they are asylum seekers. We know that they’re migrating.”
This exhibition is unlike what RAICES, which is largely known for providing free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children and families as well as refugees, usually does. But by making such a bold statement, organizers hope it opens people’s eyes to what is happening in this country and how the rights of immigrants are being violated.
“It is unacceptable that CBP and ICE treat humans in this way,” Rea says. “This issue is a human rights issue. A lot of the people in this nation like to make this political and left or right, but the truth is that this is a human rights issue that this country and the government are now [continuing] to exacerbate by denying people the right to asylum. Asylum is a human right. [With this, more] people can walk away understand that the conditions under which people are treated when they are first walking into our country seeking protection are unacceptable and inhumane and are [in violation of] the laws that we established as a country.”
The exhibition will take place at 308 Guadalupe St. in Austin, Texas. It will run on March 8 from noon to 6 p.m., on March 9 from 11 am. to 2 p.m., on March 15 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on March 16 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.