What it is Like in the Immigration Detention Center, Managua Nicaragua
(hint: it will make you realize 1. just how much people envy US opportunities and 2. it ain’t just Mexicans or other latinos crossing the borders).
The van rolled in late. I was told to exit the vehicle and rose my head from the face-down position I was told to keep for the last hour or so. I didn’t know where I was at the time, but I followed the two men in the white uniforms across the gravel parking lot and through the door. They ushered me into the office and then into a little room where I was told to empty my pockets and was searched. There wasn’t anything in my pockets. I put my clothes back on and asked for a glass of water and food. It had been a long day in the hot sun and I hadn’t eaten in about 36 hours (poor logistics on my part…not the fault of the Immigration officials). They brought me a tumbler filled with water and let me search through a pile of stacked plates for leftover supper. I ate thankfully on cold gallo pinto and they lead me to a dark room in the back.
“This is the dormitory,” they said. You can sleep here tonight.”
The light came on and my eyes adjusted to see a room about 30′ x 30′ lined with about a dozen bunkbeds and the floor covered in people. Surprisingly there was a bottom bunk unoccupied so I took it. When I sat down I nearly fell right through the missing slat that was hidden by the thin foam mattress. So this is why there is a free bed. I’m tall and I was tired and I made it work.
This was the immigration detention center. Every immigration office in Nicaragua has one and I was in the country’s largest. Basically that meant it had two cells instead of one.
A few hours later daylight started waking people up, one by one. There was chatter in Spanish, strange English, some Asian language and others I could make out even less. As people started moving about the locked “dormitory” I could get a better idea of the layout. There were about 30 guys. Not prisoners in this jail cell but migrants. Huge difference.
The first thing you notice when you walk into the cell of the immigration detention center is the writing on the walls. The walls are covered in the hopes and fears of past residents and their well wishes to current ones. “Welcome to hell.” “Afganistan will never die.” “Good luck to all my African brothers and sisters, there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Names always accompanied places and places included Pakistan, Ghana, Cuba, India, Mongolia, Brazil, Namibia, Lebanon, Iran. These people aren’t from countries you meet visiting the Calle Calzado in Granada or in the hotel on Little Corn Island. “The American dream exists. Don’t give up hope!” Nearly all the residents in that cell were grabbed on their journey north to the land of the free.
I spent three days in the immigration detention center.
The first morning a Costa Rican guy asked me how I slept, knowing I was in the trick bed. “Like a baby,” I replied. “Crying all night long.” The group of Cubans on the beds and floor surrounding my bed cracked up laughing. They were there until my last day and I don’t think they ever stopped laughing. Cubans are a jolly bunch. They talk incredibly fast and are very witty. The Tico told me that his case -and all the other cases- were put on hold because of the Cubans. They get bumped to the front of the line thanks to the strong Nica-Cubano ties. Russians as well. The prostitute/cocaine loving British guy had been in there for several weeks because of overstaying his tourist visa by about seven years. His Russian friend who was busted with him was taken care of in a couple of days he said.
The Brit didn’t speak much of the local language and spent his time with the two Americans who stayed inside the dorm all day smoking cigarettes. They were a complainy bunch. One tall, pale, tattooed American guy with a ring through his nose asked me, “why the fuck would you want to be here in this fucking country?” With no papers and no money, he had been in the detention center for 4+ months, longer than anyone else. The other tall, pale American guy tried to strike up a conversation asking me where the fuck I was from. I am from Texas, and I told him that in Spanish. He just stared and didn’t bother to reply. I didn’t bother either.
The people I did speak to were very friendly and shared stories of hope and adventure and really bad luck. The guy from Belize never wore a shirt and looked like a Mara, but he was talkative, outgoing and made it his duty to wash the dishes of the 50+ detainees for the kitchen ladies. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Belizian guy was the second-longest serving detainee with 3+ months in the clink. He had been living on the Caribbean coast without papers and unfortunately there is no Belizian embassy in Nicaragua. His case had fallen into the cracks of the system and he was making the best of it.
The group of three Nepalese guys had been traveling for months when they were picked up by the Nica authorities. They had traveled from Nepal to Brazil by boat, through Venezuela and up to Colombia by bus, hiked five days without food through the jungles of the Darian gap where bandits robbed them of everything except for their clothes, hitched rides to the Nepalese embassy in Panama City where they were given money, clothes, packs and passports, then grabbed looking for passage through the northern mountains of Nicaragua into Honduras. Only one spoke English, none spoke Spanish. They wanted to get to Florida where one of them has family working under the table in a convenience store. It’s hard to imagine making that long, dangerous journey to earn $8/hour.
I was new and the officials were polite to me. When I asked for a toothbrush, they gave me one. When I asked for a spoon, I got a spoon. I felt sorry for the guy from Guinea-Conakry. He had been locked up for seven weeks and the officials had gotten tired of seeing his face. Like the case of the Belizian, there is no embassy in Nicaragua and the African was expecting a long wait. He was young, perhaps 25, and spoke Portuguese from living in Brazil for the past few years. He also spoke French and Fula. One day I sat next to him with my plate of the gallo pinto we were served daily for lunch and we started a conversation in a mix of broken languages. He was one of six children, two of whom were living in New York. He was heading there for his sister’s wedding when officials grabbed him crossing from Costa Rica. He missed the wedding and had not been in contact with his family since he had been arrested. He knew they would worry but all he could do was pray to Allah and knock on the locked door every day to ask about his case.
The Tico didn’t speak English and the Indian guys didn’t speak Spanish so I offered to interpret. Tico had thrown out his shoulder having tripped and caught himself while on the run the week prior. One of the Indians had magically fixed the knee of another detainee the day before so the Tico wanted to see what he could do for him. The Indian took him through a series of range-of-motion exercises while probing the shoulder with his bony fingers and deduced he had micro-tears in his ligament. “Tell him he must keep his shoulder hot for two days,” said the Indian in his funny Indian accent. “When sleeping, do not let the shoulder touch the cold air. Cold…bad. Hot…” -he turned to look at me surely in the eyes- “GOOD.” I translated for the Tico. He slept with his bath towel tied around his shoulder and felt much better the next day. The Indians were also a jolly bunch, albeit not as laughy as the Cubans though very talkative and smiley. Two of them were doctors. Trained 7 years in the hospitals of Delhi, detained 2 weeks in Nicaragua. They were trying to get to the states because one of them knew a guy who might could get them a job in a hotel.
The two cells are connected by a short passage of sorts that empties out onto a courtyard. Half the courtyard is covered to protect from the rain and sun and the other half is wide open. And when I say wide open I mean there is a 12′ fence chain-link fence around it but there is sky and trees and warmth from the sun. On my second day a chubby nurse entered the courtyard. Dressed in full bio-body armor with gloves, mask, goggles and apron, she called everybody’s attention and asked if any of us had felt ill, had fever or shortness of breath. “If anyone exhibits any of these symptoms you need to contact us immediately,” she said. The nurse continued, “As most of you know ebola is a serious risk.” Everybody glanced over at the African guys, the African guys just rolled their eyes.
That afternoon a van pulled around the back of the building, less than a stone’s throw from the courtyard. The sun was high but the sight of unusual movement behind the building started drawing people out from the shade to see what was going on. Two immigration officials opened up the back of the van and pulled out a wooden coffin. They set it right there in the gravel parking lot, laid a pile of sheets and a blanket on top and lit it all on fire. We stood there watching, nobody saying much until a Cuban joked that was the end of the last guy who had his immigration case resolved. The other Cubans broke apart laughing and then all of us were cracking jokes. All except for the American guys, of course, who were still inside the room, smoking cigarettes. The coffin was reduced to ashes and spread with a rake.
There were female detainees. All of them were Cuban who were traveling with the group when they were rounded up. They had their own dorm room on the far side of the building. It never occurred to me before then that women also make the dangerous trip north the the land of liberty. A few of them stayed busy sweeping and cleaning the area. Two of them even decided to clean the bathroom of our dormitory. Good thing since it was filthy. There was a block of four showers, one worked, two didn’t and the fourth constantly leaked water into a mop bucket. The two toilets lacked seats and the wash basin had to be turned on at the intake valve below. There was a lock on the inside of the door -string that you tied around a nail- and it was okay to be the only one using the bathroom. Even with 40 people having to relieve themselves several times a day, everybody was took advantage of their bathroom privacy. Except the Indians. When one Indian was in the bathroom, all of them were in there. They washed their shoes together in the shower every morning.
I thought a lot about the people locked in the immigration jail. If you want to visit with first-world travelers, you stay at a hostal. If you want to visit with third-world travelers, you stay in the immigration jail. Both travelers and migrants are in the country for a purpose, but the gap between the two couldn’t be any wider. Money comes easy for the first-world traveler, so easy they can spend it in far off lands throwing themselves at “safe” adventures like volcano boarding. Third-world travelers do it with the dream of being able to work and save, make money not to spend but to send home to their families. Their adventures are very much unwanted and dangerous, but the reward is worth the risk. I hadn’t been living in Nicaragua since 2008 so that I could make money. Why had I left the states, left the opportunities, left my family when so many people from around the world were knocking on the country’s doors trying to be let in? I felt humbled by the courage, patience and determination of most of the detainees. The United States is an amazing country built by immigrants for immigrants. I hoped the guys and gals I shared those three short days with are able to make it safely.
About every two hours an official
I looked back through the crowd of people at the door and flashed him a peace sign. Indeed I was.