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UA launches archive of art & stories by those held in Az migrant detention centers

UA launches archive of art & stories by those held in Az migrant detention centers

'Detained: Voices from the Migrant Incarceration System' includes oral histories & works created by people in Arizona's immigration facilities

  • A drawing of the detention area known as 'Dublin Core' in Florence, Ariz.
    Detained Archive/University of ArizonaA drawing of the detention area known as 'Dublin Core' in Florence, Ariz.

As part of a partnership with two immigration rights groups, the University of Arizona will host an archive of oral histories, art and memorabilia collected from migrant detainees held in Arizona. 

The project, called Detained: Voices from the Migrant Incarceration System, is collaboration between the UA, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project and Salvavision.

On Wednesday evening, organizers celebrated the launch of the projectwith a packed house at the Blacklidge Community Center, giving supporters their first chance to listen to archived interviews and see digital projections of art and memorabilia, including elements collected by one of Salavision's founders, Dora Rodriguez, who contributed about 80 pages of notes and correspondence with migrants.

Since 1989, the Florence Project has provided free legal and social services to individuals in immigration detention in the state. Meanwhile the Tucson-based Salavision provides aid and support to asylum seekers and migrants in just across the U.S.-Mexico border in Sasabe, Sonora , about 60 miles southwest of Tucson.

There are six immigration detention centers in Arizona, including facilities managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CoreCivic, a private prison company. At the end of January, around 24,000 people were held in immigration detention facilities nationwide.

In 2019, Rodriguez began volunteering with Keep Tucson Together and the Florence Project, and began traveling to detention centers to get information on detainees’ needs and offer legal support. As she worked, more detainees sought her help, and her phone number spread "like wildfire" among the detainees, and she kept correspondence with about 100 people. To track this effort, Rodriguez began tracking her communications, including financial support for bail and commissary, as well as sponsorships—required for individuals to be released. As the COVID-19 pandemic closed public access to the detention centers, Rodriguez continued her services by phone.

The archive includes stories from migrants who stayed in for-profit detention centers in Florence and Eloy. Interviews were recorded, transcribed and translated for the archive. This includes an interview with Afshin, an Iranian immigrant who traveled through nearly a dozen counties before he sought asylum the United States.

The archive grew from David Taylor's decades-long focus on the nature and changing circumstances of the borderlands. Taylor, a professor of art the UA, has spent the last 20 years thinking about the tropes that make up society's concept of Western history after he moved to Arizona. A photographer, Taylor launched a project in 2017 to photograph the monuments marking the U.S.-Mexico, documenting the 276 obelisks built by the International Boundary Commission after the Mexican-American War.

However, he said he became more intently focused on stories from those who crossed the border to seek asylum or work, and hoped to create a space to let people tell their own stories.

"My goal in all of this is to ensure that people's experiences do not disappear. These are people who don't get to write history. They don't usually have their say," Taylor said.

The Detained archive also shows "the industrial-scale" of border security, which includes not only infrastructure like the controversial border wall built by the Trump administration, but also the large detention centers that dot Arizona.

"It's easy to miss this in the landscape because so much of it is tucked away, but this is part of our history and there's a significant amount of our human experience that has transpired with them," Taylor said.

During the presentation, Taylor noted some details have been scrubbed from conversations and art to better anonymize the migrants, who may still be in the midst of pursuing their immigration cases, or worry threats they fled could follow them the U.S.

"We take the highest responsibility to make sure we protect people," he said.

Taylor worked with Susan Briante, a professor of English, and author and translator Francisco Cantú to build the project, along with School of Information graduate student Aems Emswiler, College of Law alumnus David Blanco, and former UArizona associate professor Anita Huizar Hernández, and staff from the Florence Project to interview a dozen former detainees of the detention centers in Florence and Eloy.

"All of the testimony that you'll hear is difficult," warned Briante.

A former Border Patrol agent in the Tucson Sector, Cantú wrote the celebrated memoir "The Line Becomes a River" and now works alongside Briante as co-coordinator of the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program for the UArizona Master of Fine Arts program. Cantú said detention facilities are often underreported and the least understood facet of border enforcement, and a lack of public awareness creates a need to tell the stories of directly impacted individuals.

"These are places that are very rarely infiltrated and seen, and it's very hard for stories to come out of these spaces," he said. "We want people to realize this is happening right now on the scale that it is. The archive has a real pulse, a heartbeat."

Greer Millard, a spokeswoman for the Florence Project, said the effort required a great deal of trust between the organizations, earned over the last three years as the Florence Project worked with Taylor and the rest of the team. "This is a really special project, we have an opportunity to tell personal stories from those who are in detention, and we see this as a chance to help people from Arizona, and even the nation, understand what happens in these facilities."

The Detained is backed by a donation of nearly $60,000 through the Digital Borderlands Grant project, a three-year effort funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The UA's Libraries distribute funds to project which "support the integration of library services into data-intensive, humanities-focused research on the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

"The Mellon grant has been really enormous just to get this project going, and our partnership with the Florence Project is fundamental to this work," Briante said. "Now, we are committed to seeing it continue."

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