“Line up over here if you’re visiting the male detainees.”
I always have plenty of time to think when I’m visiting at Otay Mesa Detention Center because getting through processing is time-consuming. I’ll spare you all the really boring details, but sitting in a room for 1 to 2 hours without a cell phone is a lesson in patience. Prison rules don’t allow me to bring much through the heavily fortified electric gates, and cell phones are definitely verboten.
Eventually, the boredom ends when a guard shouts, “line up over here if you’re visiting the male detainees.” For me, it’s a not so gentle reminder of how our government views and treats transgender women. They are housed with men because they are seen as men.
Ironically, I’m treated by the guards with deference. This time, a guard picked my white complexion out of a sea of brown faces and politely asked me if I needed any help. I said no, but I quickly realized that because I’m white they must have assumed that I was an attorney. In any event, someone with privilege.
After you’re processed by the CoreCivic guards (they exchange your ID for a visitor pass and make you walk through a metal detector) they take you and forty to fifty other people through layers of security – cameras, locked doors, guards – into a large room filled with chairs and tables.
As we burst into the room seemingly all at once, the kids, wives, grandmas, and grandpas dispersed quickly, pairing up with loved-ones. The guard had warned us all, “only one hug and one kiss” for prisoners. To my relief, the trans woman we were there to visit, Jaime, was easy for me to find. She was still alone at her table in her baggy dark blue prison uniform. She had never seen us, we had not met her. But her anxiety gave me the confidence to make eye contact.
“It’s me, Ellen,” my wife yelled while giving a big hug to this woman who didn’t seem to be more than 120 pounds, and maybe five-foot two-inches. Ellen had previously talked with Jamie by phone so her voice broke the ice. I also gave Jaime a hug and we all sat down, careful to follow the guard’s instructions: “hands in full view on the table at all times.” But that didn’t stop us from holding hands.
Jaime is a 47-year-old trans woman from El Salvador. She hitch-hiked 2,719 miles. After spending three months in a safe house called Jardin Mariposa in Tijuana, she crossed legally and has been at Otay Mesa for almost a month.
I asked her if she felt safe in detention, incarcerated with hundreds of men. To my surprise, she said she felt safer at Otay Mesa than back in her country. Getting sent back would be a death sentence for her and that’s why she’s asking for asylum. She used to sell food from her house in San Salvador for many years, giving money to gang members so she could operate. One day they threw her out of her home and threatened to slit her throat if they saw her again. In Spanish, she said, “You have strong laws here to protect people.” She hoped that someday she could start a business to introduce Americans to Salvadoran food.
We asked her if she needed anything. “A sweater. It costs $15 in the commissary,” she said. We promised her that there was money, donated by Americans, going into her account. We assured her that there were many people on the outside that are sympathetic. Jaime has no attorney to help her through a complicated maze of legal proceedings. Without legal representation, her chance of being granted asylum is slim.
“Five-minutes left” the guard announced. Detainees were told to stand against one wall, families and friends to another. The detainees without legal representation are kept there for months and in some cases even years. The vast majority have not committed any crime and really want to integrate into our society. But our immigration system would rather pay $750 per day per prisoner to keep them locked up.
We said our goodbyes to Jaime from across the room where she was standing with men twice her size. I blew her a kiss and she smiled before we were led out of the room.