Talking Immigration Detainees Off The ledge

While listening to Weekend Morning Edition one recent Saturday there was a story about a program to reduce suicides. 

And, as is often the case, they included a public service announcement at the end, “If you or someone you know may be considering harming themselves, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can reached at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255.”

And as is often the case when I hear this message, I burst into tears.

The thought of compassionate people, waiting at the other end of the line to talk callers off the ledge is always a trigger for me.  I have spent hours in my office as the helper, receiving desperate cries for help, and I have my own history of dark nights alone on the ledge.  I have been glancing over my shoulder and catching glimpses of suicide stalking me for 50 years.

My big brother Bill committed suicide 21 years after returning from Vietnam.  21 long miserable, tormenting, alcohol fueled raging years during which he could never make sense of the experience of war and his inability to reintegrate to the country which didn’t want him when he had returned. He ended up living in the mountains of Idaho with other burned out Vietnam vets.

My first fire department incident was a suicide, a young man hung himself with a chain from a eucalyptus tree on a golf course.  I had to climb up the ladder, drape him over my shoulder, then take both of us up another step to get enough slack in the chain to free him.

For years afterwards I asked myself, why a chain?

Somewhere around the third year of my eight years in the fire department I became tormented by suicidal thoughts rooted in my shame over the children I failed to save.  I didn’t kill them, but I had failed in a very elemental task: don’t let children die on your watch!

Over the next 14 years suicidal thoughts were a constant companion as I struggled with Post Traumatic Stress.  The main reason I never killed myself was fraternal – when someone discovers a suicide they call 911.  And 911 sends the Fire Department.  And I couldn’t saddle brother firefighters with arriving to witness the suicidal remains of a former firefighter.

With this history of personal heartbreak I am drawn to people in crisis.  And no one stops me in my tracks and beckons me more than someone who is suicidal.

My experiences on the American Bar Association Commission on Immigration’s ICE Detainee Hotline.

For nine years I supervised the ABA’s ICE Detainee Hotline which received calls from people in deportation proceedings who had been locked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”.) Most of them were detained in rural county jails where they had no access to immigration lawyers and they would have to represent themselves before the Immigration Judge.  Our office provided them with information on how the immigration court system worked, what types of relief from deportation may be available, and what evidence they would need to present to the IJ to avoid being deported.

On almost a daily basis I found myself taking calls from frantic ICE detainees who were entangled in a hopeless situation as they fought to avoid being sent back to a country where people wanted to kill them.  These were people who had left everything they had, everyone they loved, to make a frantic dash for safety only to find themselves jailed in the U.S.  In ICE detention they were disrespected, denied adequate food and medical care and treated worse than many convicted criminals. 

On my worst days, the people I talked to  were suicidal. 

Mr. F. Mr. F. once told me, “When I start feeling like there is nothing left to live for, I just repeat to myself what you told me, ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’  And then I take a deep breath like you told me to, look around at the dirty walls and bunk beds and orange jumpsuits and repeat my mantra, ‘This sucks, but one day I’ll be back in the world and I can stand in the sun again, and that is worth living for.'”

Photo credit:

Other times that simple phrase was not enough to reach the core of their despair.  For those calls I had to stop, close my eyes, take a deep breath and wait for my heart to connect to theirs and then inspiration would come to me.

Photo credit: The Guardian

Ms. A.
Ms. A. was a woman detained down in Florida who had been locked up for more than two years and she would call from solitary confinement in a total panic, wailing and nearly incoherent and the interns knew to quickly pass the call to me. And over the course of the next 15 minutes, before the facility would cut the call off, I could always talk her down, calming her and could often coax a quiet laugh out of her about one dumb thing or another. One day, when we heard the recorded warning, “This call will end in one minute” she said, “You know what, Mr. Bob? I think you are an angel because you can always make me feel better.”

I replied, “Well you know what, young lady? Every time you call me, and we work some things out, by the end of the call, I feel better. So maybe you are the angel giving me energy to help other detainees.”

She was silent for a moment then said, “I like that. I am going with that – I am an angel helping you help other detainees.”

Ms. L

Ms. L. was a Middle Eastern women behind bars on the west coast and she was usually an absolute delight to talk to because even though she had been through hell when she was being persecuted in her home country, including being sexually assaulted, she remained a bright, witty, charming woman, who spoke French, Arabic and English, quick to laugh, and occasionally bursting into tears as the pressure of being behind bars for so long overwhelmed her. For months she has been living in solitary confinement to avoid problems in general population. But on this particular Monday as we talked it was nothing but tears. She was in the worst shape ever and it really worried me when she started talking about how it didn’t seem worth it to live any more. I was wracking my brain for something to cheer her up and I asked her if she had been going outside for her one hour of recreation each day and she said that she hadn’t been outside for a month because her recreation hour was at 7:30 in the morning and she was so depressed she just wanted to sleep. I suggested that the next day, Tuesday, she wake up and go out to recreation. 7:30 am her time would be 10:30 my time in Washington DC and I promised I would go outside at the same time, and we would walk together under the same sky and in the same sunlight. For the first time in the conversation I heard a smile in her voice as she said it was a silly idea, but she would do it.

Photo Credit: National Immigrant Law Center, “A Broken System”

On Tuesday I took my walk at 10:30, it was a beautiful morning and I stopped under a cherry tree, closed my eyes and wished for her a calm energy.  And I again thanked the Universe for giving me the opportunity to be in touch with people in crisis over the past 45 years.

Wednesday she called me and was positively giddy and laughing as she gave me this report: “ Monday night I asked the night guard, ‘Can you wake me up early, I have a meeting with a friend.’ And I am sure the guard thought I was crazy, but they always think I am crazy, so who cares? In the morning I went outside for the first time in a month and it was beautiful in the rec yard, there were so many birds I felt like Snow White as they were flying around me, and I was telling them, ‘Mr. Bob sent you, didn’t he!’ So lovely, so lovely, let’s do it again!”

And we had a great conversation for about ten minutes and then an intern handed me a note. “Sorry,” I told her, “but I have to go now, there is a detainee who has been cutting himself and he promised me to call me before he did anything to hurt himself again, and I was just told he is on the phone and it is urgent.”

And she said, “Oh please, I am fine, go, go, he needs an angel.”

Kimani Anderson

Photo credit: MassLive

And then there was the ICE detainee who most touched my heart and the heart of my intern, Adiba.  He gave me permission to use his name whenever I am telling his story because he was so furious about his treatment and how he had been used and discarded told. Kimani was in solitary confinement/protective custody in Georgia after he had been attacked, stabbed and sexual assaulted, when other detainees learned he had been an informant for the FBI and had helped bring down a Jamaican drug ring. When he informed the FBI that he could no longer help them because the danger had become too great, rather than give him the promised U Visa for helping in the prosecution of a crime, they framed him for a murder he did not commit and when evidence proved that he had been framed by the FBI, he was acquitted. The FBI then turned him over to ICE to dispose of him by deporting him. On one of his darkest days, when he was absolutely bereft in his cell he called and in his deep, rumbling voice I could heard total despair, “Mr. Bob you got to help me here, I’m drowning!  Can you give me a single shred of hope?”

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to summon the energy to find hope in his hopeless situation.

“My friend, you are not going to be spending the rest of your life in ICE detention.  One day you will wake up and it will be your Freedom Day – whether you are released or deported, you will be leaving detention and be back in the free world.  When I was in the Army, we always kept a count of how much longer we would be wearing Uncle Sam’s green, and we expressed it as, ’39 days and a wake up.’  We just had to make it through 39 more days and then we would wake up and it would be Freedom Day, we would be heading home.  And your situation is emotionally more difficult because you can’t count down the days, in ICE detention you have no idea how long it will be until you get a final decision in your case. But one thing is certain, every morning when you wake up, you are one day closer to your ‘and a wake up’ day, one day closer to Freedom Day.”

There was a long silence on the phone, then a rumble. “I’m going to write that down and put it over my bed,” he said.  ‘One day closer to Freedom Day.’  Every morning, after I say my prayers, I’ll thank God that I am one day closer to Freedom Day.  I love you, Mr. Bob.”

“I love you, my brother.”

He told me over the months that followed that every morning he took comfort in those words. He is out of detention, he is gone, deported, and I hope he is successfully hiding in Jamaica, I hope he is well.  He remains in my heart

Which reminds me of this:

Dave Pierre

Dave Pierre was an ICE detainee who had been locked up for 1,144 days in ICE detention and he called me every Thursday.  Over those years he was a prolific complaint writer and working with the me at the ABA we filed scores of complaints about conditions of detention in half a dozen different detention centers and he made positive changes in the facilities he was in, much to the chagrin of the facility staff and ICE officials.  And then, out of nowhere, after nearly four years in detention, ICE released him one day with no explanation.  After his release he came to the office and visited me and met with my interns to describe his ordeal.

When we were all settled in a conference room, I reminded him that I had often kidded him about fighting deportation to the Caribbean island of Antigua.  “People spend thousands of dollars to visit Antigua, Dave.”

“You are right, Mr. Bob.  Thousands of tourists still come to Antigua, rich white people like you.  Trust me, it is no vacation to be a black Antiguan in Antigua.”

You can hear an interview Dave Pierre on Democracy Now at:

Finally, My Gratitude Board

While working at the ABA I put up one of those three-part folding cardboard displays like we used at the Middle School Science Fair, with the title, “Please post about anything you are grateful for.” 

Over the next few weeks we collected the hilarious, and sometimes touching, variety of responses you would expect from a group of people who had spent decades involved in social justice work, and others whose work had taken them around the world.  One I could relate to as a traveler was:

“I am grateful for a clean, available toilet just when I need it.”

But the one that broke my heart, in a sweet way, was:

“I am grateful there is a suicide hotline.  I am even more grateful that my sister found it.”

When I think back on these detainees, and the 38,000+ who are sitting behind bars as you read this, I would ask you, if you are so inclined, to say a prayer for those who have lost hope and are trying to hold back tears, trying to hold on for one more day.  I hope their freedom day comes quickly and when they stand in the sunlight again they can let go of the pain and discover the rainbow that follows the storm.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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