In the blink of an eye, everything changed.
Your day begins at 3:30 A.M. when you get a rattling knock on the narrow pane of glass on your cell door, by the new officer during shift change. This is done to make sure 'you’re-still-alive-and-breathing’. After all, possible suicides are not allowed.
By 4:00 A.M.; after a fitful night of sleep interrupted with the beeps of radio announcements, toilets flushing so loud you feel like you’re in the middle of a tornado, or chit-chatting officers who forget that having loud and raucous conversation at two in the morning is not a good idea; your cell lights are turned on, breakfast trays are announced, and you’re forced to trudge downstairs (in my case) to the day room, line up and prepare to get your teal-colored tray (special no-salt diet because of my high blood pressure), made up of different compartments and filled with congealed grits or cream o’wheat, watery mud-colored gravy, a slice of dry cornbread, a dollop of jelly, and a carton of milk. Some choose to eat at that ungodly hour, while others try to save it for a more reasonable time. That’s where your purchased plastic bowl - from commissary - comes in handy. You stuff it with your food, receive from others who are not interested in eating, or exchange for something better (in my case, I get to give away my milk – no fan of it – to an inmate from Togo who barely speaks English, but tries, and is a wonderful lady who’s been stuck there for eight months and counting).
You have only thirty minutes to chow down, then get the cleaning equipment to get your room clean – and that of course depends on how many people are waiting in line to use said equipment - but all has to be completed before 5:00 A.M., when you, thankfully, get some peace and quiet…until the next rattling knock is heard on your door at 6:30 A.M.. Another check in because committing suicide after breakfast just might be plausible.
8:30 A.M.: Free Time – you have to get up, make your bed (not doing so constitutes a lock-down in your cell as punishment) – and shuffle on down to the day room where you are forced to listen to ‘orientation’ or rules by the officer in charge, then you can watch T.V., read your book (which is courtesy of a wheeled-in cart by two volunteers with the same set of books each and every time), chit chat, eat your breakfast that you’ve saved from earlier, take showers – and the showers are right there in the middle of the day room (where at this point in time, any cause to be embarrassed is null and void) – until 11:30 A.M. when it’s officially lunch time. Same routine. Line up on the steps, and then receive your trays of whatever sloppy thing they’ve managed to slap onto them this time around. Mostly its pasta (macaroni or spaghetti) and bread - always two slices of bread – doled out so often we literally get sick at the sight of it.
1:30 P.M. – Lock Down – you go into your cells and do whatever…well you have to be on your bed and be ‘quiet’.
3:30 P.M. – Free Time – same routine as above until
7:30 P.M. – Dinner – same routine as above until
8:00 P.M.– Free Time – and you repeat the same routine, only some officers give you until a certain time to make use of the showers – until
9:30 P.M. – Unofficial bed time – as in you have to be in your cell, get your act together until
11:30 P.M. – Lights Out – meaning you cannot turn on your light to do anything, and you must be in bed.
Just another day in the books.
If you had told me I’d be going through something like this four weeks ago, I might have thought you a bit crazy, but not so much. I’ve always imagined what life would be like in prison; especially when you watch a lot of movies, television, documentaries, and read books that detail such an experience. However, it’s one thing to imagine it; it’s a completely different thing to actually live through it.
I guess being ravaged with the flu, the week before all went downhill, should have been an ominous sign. I had never been that sick before (at least during flu season), and every day felt like an enormous burden being placed on my shoulders. If any of you have been paying attention to some of my blog entries, you might have noted a few of my commentaries on how difficult things have become for immigrants like me especially in the state of Georgia. Stricter laws make it more difficult to get something as simple as a driver’s license, and you’re constantly looking over your shoulder wondering if you’re going to be pulled over for some minor offense and sent straight to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to finally get your deportation papers.
You might be asking yourself: "How did I get into this mess in the first place? You say you’ve lived in America for 22 years…so what happened? Why were you kicked out?"
Not for lack of trying; believe me.
I came to the States in 1996 on a visitor’s visa; to help my older sister who had just been involved in a car accident that almost left her paralyzed. With three young children, there was no way she could take care of them, and I was brought right after high-school graduation to assist. I knew I had come to help raise the kids, but I also held on to the ideal that with my coming to the ‘land-of-the-free’- where anything and everything was possible - I could end up making something of myself.
Looking back now, there were so many things we could have done differently in the process of getting my status changed. However, I was able to get a social security card, have a Georgia ID, driver’s license, and everything else; all legally, which also included the lengthy journey of becoming an American citizen.
However, you know that saying; when it rains, it pours? Well, that was exactly what happened. Not to get into too much detail; the next few years were spent on legal fees, trying to convince the United States government that they were the ones who were in the wrong, and I should not have to pay a penalty for their mistakes. I was officially given the boot back in 2004, but did not know about it (thanks, oh-wonderful-and-expensive lawyers) until 2010 when ICE came pounding on my door seeking my arrest. So, even more lawyers were involved, and we managed to file for something called a ‘Stay of Deportation’, where I was allowed to remain in the country as long as I kept reporting to ICE – first every few months (with an ankle monitor on ▼ ), and when that was eventually removed, I was allowed to report every year. As long as I remained a good citizen; did not get into any felonies, crimes, etc. etc. I could stay – that was the law under the Obama Administration at least.
I believe I once wrote an article about ICE and their officers. While some of them can be unforgiving and stern; 80% are the most considerate, understanding, and wish-they-really-didn’t-have-to-do-this kind of people. There is one particular officer, who I have to thank, and did thank on the day I was booked; for he was the one responsible for showing me routes to getting an employment card, made sure I graduated college, and got my nursing degree. May God continue to bless you and your family, Officer B. You are an angel in the midst of despair and desolation.
So, after over thousands…thousands of dollars spent in my quest to become a citizen, it all came down to that day: 10th January 2018.
I went to work the night before, and there was really no ‘odd’ feeling – well aside from me still battling the after effects of the flu – assuming that come morning, I’d just go down to ICE for my usual routine check in, come back home, get some rest and think of returning to work that night. With permission from my boss, I left at five, instead of seven, so I could beat the rush hour traffic, and got home in time to grab a quick breakfast – oatmeal – and nap on my couch…for the last time (except I didn’t know that at the time).
I almost missed my nephew (he was the one taking me downtown) because I had fallen into deep sleep already, and by the time we were half-way there, I knew we were barely going to make it. In the past, I tend to leave for my appointments at five in the morning, so I can get there by seven at the latest. That way, I could beat the long lines at the ICE office – because trust me, there are many folks who have to report daily.
Did I still feel things would be different? Perhaps. My anxiety level was beginning to rise; but more out of the fact that I’d have to sit there all day as the process was usually a slow and tedious one. My fears were confirmed when we finally arrived and there were at least fifty folks ahead of me. Urgh. I told my nephew he could go home as I would probably be there all day, but God bless the kid; he chose to stick it out, not wanting to leave me. Looking back now, I’m really glad he chose to do so.
I submitted my required document in the desk bin and went to take a seat; squeezed between a South American woman and an African male. No one spoke to each other, unless they were family; and the tense silence was broken by the sounds of gurgling babies, chirping children, or lawyers barging in with bulging briefcases and documents with their (mostly) non-English-speaking clients in tow.
By noon, I knew something was wrong.
I had been watching the officer, who picked my document, as he typed something on his computer. With his full beard, pale skin, and black face cap; he could have passed for your regular redneck getting ready for an afternoon of NASCAR and booze. He didn't look any older than twenty-five, and though his voice was pleasant enough, there was a chilly undertone that seeped through now and then. He eventually called me up, asked about the status of my case, and I told him I was basically only reporting at this point. He then asked for my passport (which I had on me), and I turned that in. Guess that should have been the hint, for with that now out of my hands, I was officially a goner. He told me to have a seat and to wait for him to make a ‘photocopy’, and he’d be right back.
Okay. I was still holding out hope that nothing was going to happen. If he’s just going to make a photocopy, that’s all, right? No problem, is there? It’s not as if I plan to leave the country anytime soon. So all is well and cool, and I should keep hope alive.
An hour later, he returned with a “oh sorry, but I have to discuss something with my boss, and we’re still trying to make a decision. Give me a few more minutes.”
Now the panic was beginning to set in.
What had I done wrong? What was there to discuss? I began to pray. I really had no idea what my prayers were, but I regressed to my Catholic upbringing and began reciting the Nicene Creed, saying the Our Father, Hail Mary, and “The Lord is my Shepard” all beneath my breath.
An hour later, he returns and tells me I have to go upstairs. Upstairs, is where you get to really sit down with an ICE officer to discuss your case/fate.
I do so; it’s jam-packed as usual, and I end up having to stand in the hallway for there’s no seat available. ‘Lucky’ me, he actually says I get to bypass all these folks who have been sitting there for a while, and I get to go into the ‘inner sanctum’; a claustrophobic haven with maroon walls. I am made to sit on a narrow, uncomfortable chair before three cubicles, where other immigrants are being interrogated.
I’ll never forget the Indian couple at the furthest cubicle. The woman is in tears, sobbing her heart out as the officer tells her she’ll have to be detained while her husband is allowed to go home to get their affairs in order for deportation. I hear them beg and plead that they’ve lived in the States for over thirty years, have a business, and children. He even pleads that he be the one incarcerated while his wife goes home, for she’s got anxiety issues as well and is on specific medication she cannot afford to skip. Did you think the officers were swayed by this? Absolutely not. Nothing the couple could say or do would change their minds. To think that this poor, sweet-faced, older lady would have to spend the rest of her days in prison until their passports were ready, just about broke my heart. To compound matters, this was going on in the other cubicles as well, and though some managed to compose themselves, I felt the panic rising within me.
I began texting my family, workers, boss, friends, and of course letting you all know here on Writing.com - and Facebook - that there was a possibility I would not be returning anytime soon. That fear was confirmed when the officer returned and motioned me to take an empty seat. He did try to look contrite as he broke the news to me, and though I told myself that I would be ready to hear it, there is really nothing that can prepare you for the blow.
“We’re sorry, but you’ll have to be detained today.”
The tears broke free before I could control them. Suddenly, everything I had ever worked for; all that I had been through the past 22 years felt like a terrible dream shattered before my eyes. I found myself begging and pleading like the Indian couple; could they at least let me go home to set my affairs in order? Even if it’s just a week, even if they have an officer watching me the whole time, I didn’t mind. I couldn’t just up and leave like this. I have so much unfinished business to take care of.
“No, we’re sorry, ma’am. We’re going to have to take you to the detention center tonight and begin processing.”
I still didn’t get it. I had done nothing wrong. I had committed no crimes. I was clean. The law stated I could remain here and keep working on trying to get my citizenship, if I had no criminal record. Why was I being deported now?
“The new law is in effect,” the officer replied. “I’m really sorry, ma’am. I know under the last administration, you could stay, but the new administration has a zero tolerance policy now. It doesn’t matter if you have a clean record or not. If you’re supposed to be deported, you’ll be deported. If you do have a pending case/application, then it might be postponed until the case is resolved.”
My brother, in the US, was currently filing an I-130 for me. Didn’t that count for anything?
“Not really. That process takes years. If it was your father or mother, that might have been different, but a sibling filing for each other is not applicable.”
I have no kids. Strike two. I have no husband. Strike three. What’s keeping me here? he asks as if that was the most obvious question in the world.
What’s keeping me here? I have a job and a life here! I’ve been here for 22 damn years! I’ve paid my taxes, broken no laws, done all I can to be an ideal citizen (whatever that means), and that’s not enough for you all? What else do you want? My blood? Literally?
Did not matter to them.
And so I had to sit there, sobbing uncontrollably on the phone to my shocked family and friends. My boss at work wondered if she could do anything to help; my friends were too stunned to react much, my sister was just as distraught; her heartbreaking tears and concerns that she had been a failure, not doing much to help with my feelings of despair. I cannot begin to tell you just how much she and her husband, and my brother…and everyone for that matter…have done for me. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to do so. I wished I could have told her that then, but my phone and personal belongings were ‘seized’; as in my nephew would have to take them home. Bless his heart; I’m sure he was just as confused as to what was going on, but the bottom line…I was never going home with him again.
I couldn’t even say a proper goodbye, as I was taken into the back office, made to stand against the wall, frisked and searched, told to take off my shoelaces (remember I came straight from work and had no time to change my uniform, so I was still in scrubs and sneakers) and then the cold hard steel of handcuffs were slapped on my wrists.
Will I be there for long? I asked. If you wanted me to leave the country, why not just let my family purchase the ticket, and then ICE escort me to the airport tonight and spare you all the trouble of putting me behind bars?
“Just standard procedure,” they said. “But don’t worry, you won’t stay there for too long. You should be out in less than a month.” (at least that part was right)
Escorted by two officers, I was ushered into a van that took me right to the prison (detention center sounds so ‘tame’, doesn’t it?) where I was officially booked, picture taken, and all that protocol reserved for hardnosed criminals. Then it was time to get my new garb; orange scrubs and sweatshirt (if you need a better visual – it’s exactly what those women wear in Orange is the New Black), and turn in my scrubs and wrist watch. They at least let me keep my shoes and socks, so yay for small mercies. With an additional thin blanket, two sheets, towel, toilet tissue, and a pair of rubber slippers thrust into my hands, I was taken to my new home for God knows how long.
It was a semi-circular shaped space preceded by two security doors. In the middle of this space was the officer’s desk complete with the automated system that opened each cell door. There are 48 rooms in all; 24 upstairs and 24 downstairs. Each room is about 6 x 8 feet, with a single (or bunk) wrought iron bed attached to the wall. You have a thin rubber-covered mattress, and since my room had a bunk bed, I had two mattresses at my disposal – and no pillow. There’s a low toilet, a sink with a small mirror above it, a ‘table’ which is nothing more than a wooden surface attached to the wall, and a narrow window that’s too high to see out of. You can definitely hear the sounds of the city, but you can only use your imagination to guess what’s going on outside.
As I mentioned earlier, the cell door is wooden, but with a narrow pane of glass about forehead level, where you can peek out or an officer can peek in. The walls are of brick, and painted with a shade of white that’s not very bright. I considered it ‘puke white’ to be honest. Back downstairs, there’s a small room for ‘programs’ – which translates to rooms where visiting churches/chaplains/lawyers etc. can have their pow-wows. There are eight telephones available for use only during free time – and you can well imagine the lines that form to use them especially after dinner. Plastered all over the walls are posters with warnings against sexual abuse; heavy-laden with depressing images of women (or men) wishing they were dead. Phone numbers to attorneys, ICE officers, consulates, embassies, rules, rules, and more rules are also available, and of course, there’s a touch-screen kiosk to order your commissary, which must be put in by Wednesday, to get your things delivered by Monday of the next week.
(By the way, if you ever doubted that the prison industry is not one giant profit-making conglomerate, you’re dead wrong. There’s a reason they need bodies in there. Every damn thing is a business)
I arrived around nine in the evening, so just in time before the final lock down of the day. Many of my fellow inmates were in the day room - well the large space around the officer’s desk - and as you can well imagine, over 90% were Latin Americans; not just Mexicans, but folks from Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. Then you had folks from even as far as China, Germany, Haiti, Jamaica, Togo, Senegal, and of course, my homeland, Nigeria.
The first lady to welcome me had come from Bulgaria, and I’ll just call her ‘A’. She had been in there for over a year, battling with lawyers and judges in her quest to remain in a country she had called home for most of her life. It was the same story I heard from the other ladies who introduced themselves. Most of them had families as well, including a young pregnant woman, and had been locked away for almost a year, eight months, five months, and so on and so forth. While some had indeed committed minor crimes, most were in my situation; their only crime having lived in the U.S for too long. Most had no families in their native countries, and it was terrifying to think of being shipped to an unwelcome and unfamiliar environment, while leaving their children behind.
I was given something to eat (dry chicken with some greens), but had no appetite. After the day I had, I didn’t trust anything to go down at all.
By lock down, I found myself sitting in a cold, and I mean icy cold cell (please note we're in the middle of winter and there's no heater going), staring at the wall and wondering just what went wrong. Less than twenty-four hours ago, I looked forward to watching Netflix or if I could stop by CVS to pick up an extra dose of Benadryl for my allergies. Now, here I was wondering if I’d ever see the light of day again; for there was no ‘outside’ for us to go to. Their idea of a rec room, was yet another open space surrounded by brick walls and high paned windows with a basketball hoop. The ball itself was so old and thick with grime, it was a shame to hold such a thing without wanting to disinfect your entire body afterwards.
I prayed again that night…and cried, yes. Cried because I couldn’t understand it. Cried because my whole life was probably now going to be defined by this incident. Cried because I was unable to say goodbye to my family and friends properly. Cried because after hearing the other women’s stories, I wondered if I’d end up being in the same position; forgotten and kept away in here until they felt it necessary to release me. It was akin to being stripped naked and thrust into a den of wolves; only the wolves were the unseen faces of a government that just didn’t give a damn.
We were no longer women, but mere statistics, and the scary thing is that some of these women get taken to other facilities in the wee hours of the morning never to be heard from again. Two days later, ‘A’ was taken away, and I have no idea if she’s doing okay or not. She wasn’t exactly a spring chicken, and she had some health complications that required some major medical help. Most of the women in there do have medical issues, and though we are serviced by their nursing staff; to cut costs, they deliberately give lower doses, or convince you that you didn’t really need that expensive medication you were taking at home anyway. Try these generic ones that will do nothing for you, okay?
By the third day, I made myself stop crying. What was the use of it? What were those tears going to do for me? These other women had cried themselves to sleep so many times, and yet they were still here. I knew my sister and family were doing their best to find a lawyer to try to reopen my case, but deep down inside, I had a feeling it was going to go nowhere. The phrase ‘if God wills it’ has been used ad nausuem, but that was the mentality I had to go with. Perhaps there really was a reason for me to be taken away; for me to finally have time to ‘think’ and be ‘quiet’ compared to the rigors and stresses I’ve been dealing with in the past few years. Trust me, when in prison, you have nothing else to do but think, and you find yourself turning back the pages of time and wondering where and what you could have done better or differently.
However, a visit from a chaplain one Sunday had me reversing this line of thinking. Why focus so much on the past when you have the future to look forward to? That past has led me to this point, so what now? Should I continue to dwell on it? Focus all my energy on things I cannot change? Or should I choose to build up a new life from here onwards? Seems simple on paper, doesn’t it? But I vowed to put that into practice. It’s not easy, for those doubts and ‘what-ifs’ keep creeping in like incessant gnats buzzing around you, but you grit your teeth and tell yourself that you are better than these brick cell walls. You tell yourself that there is a future ahead of you, no matter what changes come. You tell yourself that you’ve survived more obstacles than you thought possible, and this difficult phase shall come to pass as well.
With that mentality in mind, I woke up on the 31st of January – at 4:00am as usual – shuffled downstairs for breakfast, when the officer began reading out the names of those going to court or being released. I was hardly paying much attention to it, when I heard my name called last. There was a collective gasp from most of the women there, because compared to them, I was only there for three weeks. However, this meant I was going straight home to my native country, no stop at the court house with a judge date to reverse my charge or any hope of returning to my apartment. They all knew it, and had varying degrees of pity, sadness, and maybe envy on their faces. Hugs were shared and prayers for my well being were imparted.
I thought I’d be able to call my family to let them know, and I did try to sneak in a phone call, but was warned by the officer that I was committing a felony for doing so. Apparently, you cannot call anyone to let them know the day or time of your flight for ‘security reasons’. Well, if I couldn’t call anyone, how were they to send over my luggage (which by the way has to only be a bag not over 40lbs with no money, cellphones, or any other electronic device within)? And so, with nothing but my jacket, my work scrubs, and a prayer on my lips, I was handcuffed and taken back to the ICE detention center, where I sat in a cell for another twelve or so hours just waiting for a late flight.
Still in handcuffs, we were eventually driven directly to the plane (tarmac) where we boarded and had the 'greatest' seats at the back of the plane (literally right next to the kitchen or whatever that is back there) in history.
So that was it then.
I came into the United States as a sixteen year old; bug-eyed, excited, with a cassette tape from my father which I had played over and over again in which he told me to make the best of myself in the United States for he was so very proud of me. I had vowed to ‘conquer’ this country and return home with riches and success plastered all over my forehead. Instead, twenty-two long years later, I arrived with nothing more than a ticket, a passport which was handed over to the authorities, leftover change from my commissary, and my trusty ol’ jacket. That was it. That was all I had to my name.
I wasn’t some millionaire. I wasn’t some big hot shot wife and mother of several amazing genius kids. I didn’t have some fantastic husband draped on my arm to show off. I didn’t even have a cellphone to call my family to let them know I was safe and sound. I had to beg a random guy in the immigration office to please, please, please let me alert them of my arrival, all the while trying to adjust and reconcile my new (yet old) surroundings.
It took some time, but as soon as I saw my big brother and baby sister, I burst into tears right there in their arms; not caring if everyone was gawking at my display. I was tired. Mentally, emotionally, physically. I was spent, and it felt good to be in the arms of someone I loved and trusted again. His hug spoke volumes. He didn’t even need to say a word to me. He understood.
They all understood.
Perhaps someday, when I’m less in shock and have had enough time to process this, I’ll write a more detailed memoir. In the interim, I’ll leave you all with this, and really do hope that it sheds some light on the happenings taking place in a country many believed held their hopes and dreams.
The human spirit - as indomitable as it can be - is also a fragile thing; easily shattered when faced with inexplicable conflict. It is up to each and every one of us to treat one another with respect and dignity…yes, dignity, for that helps to uplift one’s soul even in the bleakest of circumstances.