Refuge to Rubble: The American Dream & Immigrant Detention

Refuge to Rubble: The American Dream & Immigrant Detention

The relevance of immigrant detention all throughout America right now is, unfortunately, evident everywhere we turn. On the news, social media, and through simple word of mouth, updates on Trump’s new immigration ban and his plans to build a wall are unavoidable. In addition to the effect of immigrant detention on the families of detained immigrants, as discussed on Tuesday, many victims of Trump’s legislation are forced to live in unacceptable and inhumane conditions within the walls of detention facilities. Immigrants seeking refuge from danger in their countries are shown no mercy. It’s imperative that we continue to speak up.

During our trip to Austin, six storytellers shared with us their intersecting experiences within the twin systems of incarceration and immigrant detention. Detention facilities are meant to be a holding center, but have proven to resemble a prison environment despite housing non-violent immigrants who pose no threat. It is said that they’re detained for national security reasons, but considering Hispanics are actively sought out near the border, it is essentially legalized racial profiling. In Spanish, storyteller Sulma Franco recounted her personal experience with immigration detention, which began on only her second day in the United States:

“I fled my country to escape persecution for my sexual preference only to come to America and be arrested by immigration for crossing the border, and then humiliated for having been arrested, not having a social security number, not having a driver’s license, not speaking English. 

Many immigrants, such as Sulma, attempt to escape from danger, hoping that in America they will find a better life. Survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including children, pregnant women and those with serious illnesses are in detention. The better life that they expected to find in the United States has been taken from them. Instead, they are subjected to harsh conditions. Sulma continues,

"We were held in a small room, many of us, all from different countries, huddled together on the cold cement ground. There was one bathroom for all of us with no door. Not even a shower curtain to protect our female bodies. If you wanted to do anything in the bathroom, you had to do it in front of everyone.”

 Immigrants are given shocking conditions in which to live and are treated inhumanely in the detention centers. The motives behind immigration detention are largely financial, which explains the cruelty and neglect. Sexual assault is prevalent within the detention centers, but justice is very rarely served. Immigrants are often denied health care. Additionally, detainees with lawyers are a minority. The right to an attorney is only a guarantee if you’re in criminal court. Due to the neglect and mistreatment of detained immigrants, a reported 115 people have died in immigration custody since 2003. There are countless heartbreaking stories. Sulma’s is just one of them.

In light of the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, action is more important now than ever. We urge you to donate to our Texas partners, Grassroots Leadership and other causes that will work to change, such as The National Immigration Law Center, and Americans for Immigrant Justice . Protest and speak out for people like Sulma.

On Saturday, Feb 4th, Mass Story Lab traveled to Miami, Florida to continue amplifying the stories of people surviving the intersections of incarceration and immigrant detention. Visit to find out how you can bring a lab to your city in 2017.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab Intern


In Texas, A Daughter Tells the Painful Story of Her Father's Detainment

In Texas, A Daughter Tells the Painful Story of Her Father's Detainment

Not two weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration and the damage has already begun. Via executive order, he issued an immigration ban causing chaos and protests worldwide. This order bans roughly 218 million people from entering the United States and halts admission of refugees. In addition to this ban, Trump has future plans to triple the number of ICE officers, detain and deport all immigrants, and build the infamous wall, among many other horrifying promises that will have devastating effects on immigrants and inevitably the prevalence of immigration detention.

Silvia Zuvietta-Rodriguez, Mass Story: The Texas Incarceration Maze

Silvia Zuvietta-Rodriguez, Mass Story: The Texas Incarceration Maze

In October of 2016, we traveled to Austin, TX to explore the intersections of mass incarceration and mass detention. Immigration detention is the fastest growing form of incarceration in the United States, referring to the incarceration of immigrants while they await a determination of their immigration status or potential deportation. Texas is at the center of the expansion, as well as where for-profit detention centers got their start. Home to at least thirty privately operated facilities, it was a prime location to host a Mass Story Lab. Six storytellers recounted their experiences of how they were affected by incarceration and immigration detention in Spanish and English. Separation from family and harsh conditions was a common theme in their stories, revealing inhumanity and corrupt motives within the immigration detention system.

Seventeen-year-old Silvia Zuvieta-Rodriguez shared the story of her father’s detainment and eventual deportation. She spoke of the man behind his offence; how hard he worked, his crooked smile, and the way he would comfort her when she cried. Among her words of tribute, she emphasizes that she doesn’t even remember what he did. He was always her father first, never a criminal to her.

"It doesn't matter what was on [my father's] record,” she states. “That does not matter. We don't see the people behind… this thing that…. And I hate using the word criminal… we just see that title. We don't see the person behind it. The beauty. It doesn't matter what they did. We don't see the family. This man was an amazing man." -Silvia Zuvietta-Rodriguez 

Silvia recounts that her father’s detainment pushed her into a severe depression, eventual suicide attempt, and psychiatric hospitalization. Once she was released from the hospital, she discovered that her father had been deported, and she didn’t get that chance to say goodbye. She expresses that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) tore her family apart.

Sadly, stories like Silvia’s are all too common. Many immigrants are ripped from their homes and placed in detention facilities. Families are broken, many of them without the ability to see their loved ones while detained. If families are able to visit, they find themselves on two sides of glass, unable to touch. Wait time can be years, and it is very rare that immigrants inside holding centers are not deported.

Among her powerful story, she shares some wise words: "I'm not defined by the best thing I've ever done. I'm not defined by the worst thing. So how come the only people that are, are the people with a criminal record? Most of us, whether we want to admit it or not, have done something that has been against the law. But we don't get punished in the way immigrants do. They're separated from their families. We don't see that. We don't think of that. We don't think that immigrants have something to lose." –Silvia Zuvieta-Rodriguez

In light of the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, action is more important now than ever. We urge you to donate to our Austin, TX partners Grassroots Leadership, continue to protest, and contact your elected officials. We can create justice for families like Silvia’s.

On Feb 4th, Mass Story Lab travels to Miami, Florida to continue amplifying the stories of people surviving at the intersections of incarceration and immigrant detention.

Visit to find out how you can help us bring Mass Story Labs to 10 communities in 2017.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab Intern


Mass Story Lab @ Facing Race 2016

by Marissa Johnson, Mass Story Coordinator

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to present on behalf of Mass Story Lab at the Facing Race conference in Atlanta, GA. Facing Race is a national conference on racial justice put on by Race Forward that brings together academics, advocates, community organizers, artists, policy-makers, and more, for the cause of working together to end racism and work towards equality and justice. The honesty and vision from speakers such as Michelle Alexander, Roxane Gay, and Jose Antonio Vargas was impactful and centering. With well over 2,000 people in attendance from all over the U.S., the power in every room was palpable and undeniable, though the tone was heavy and full of uncertainty, sorrow, and fear in reaction to the recent election results. Attendees and speakers alike shared in their emotions and collective imagination of a United States free of oppression.

Despite the differences we share, be it of race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship status, ability, age, class, etc., the message emanating through and through Facing Race was that through a newfound, serious commitment to solidarity, we shall all overcome. It could be seen in the sharing of ideas, strategies, and resources, the intentional community spaces and forums for all voices, the deep listening, curiosity, and learning that happened, and more, in the countless sessions and presentations at the conference.

In our own session for Mass Story Lab, our goal was to spread the vision of the project, as well as to garner interest in potential partnerships with like-minded organizations to bring MSL to communities around the country. Co-facilitated by myself and Sharda Sekaran, Mass Story Advisor, the session moved beyond an informational presentation about the problem of mass incarceration, to a focused conversation on organizing and action. All participants shared in discussion groups about how incarceration has impacted their lives. We also brainstormed ways in which the power of storytelling could be harnessed in our respective roles and organizations to help end the prison industrial complex in our own communities. It was invigorating and rewarding to see the connections that were made and the genuine interest in partnership to bring MSL to more cities in the coming years.

All throughout the weekend, between plenaries, meals, speakers, and breakout sessions, one woman on stage repeatedly sang three simple lines over and over again:

What is your dream today?

What is my dream today?

Joy, for the suffering people.

As I return and adjust back to reality with renewed urgency and commitment, these lines keep repeating in my head, over and over.





Will You Stand With Us?

Will You Stand With Us?

Photo courtesy of Media Sutra 2016

Photo courtesy of Media Sutra 2016

Dear Community

Since launching in June 2016, Mass Story Lab has reached three states and more than 200 people committed to transforming our justice system. Our labs are designed to build and heal communities, activate civic engagement, and inspire future visions of justice. 

Two weeks ago, I was standing onstage at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC. The space is a historical artifact. It is the F.W. Woolworth building, where four students began a lunch counter sit-in that would spark powerful demonstrations of civil disobedience to end segregation across the South. 

Behind me onstage are six storytellers, each a person directly impacted by mass incarceration. A mother and wife who spent two years in prison only to come home and be told to pay $5,000 per month in restitution, a sum even her judge said he could not afford. A man who went to prison at 18 and came home at 33 realizing he had to quickly learn how to be a man in a new, highly technological world. A talented basketball player and football coach who was exonerated for a murder he did not commit after spending more than 20 years in prison, yet is still hampered by the invisible label of felon. A daughter whose father went to prison when she was two and came home when she was 18. Some 20 years would pass before a quiet revelatory moment on a lake in Minnesota, while he helps her bait her hook, finally they begin to bridge the long distance between them that incarceration has created.

Their stories are moving—and transformative, illuminating the violent contradictions of a system that claims to correct but only causes more trauma, more harm to the communities that it attacks like a virus.

The audience has heard their stories and now comes the moment of transition—the moment in which this audience makes the decision about how they will show up.  The storytellers have given them the gift of their stories, and now it is time for them to decide how they will respond.

So I ask them, “Raise your hand if you believe that people deserve a supportive community when they come from prison,” and everyone raises their hand. Next, I say, “Now stand up if you are ready to become that supportive community.” Everyone stands. They look around to see who is standing with them. Everyone in the room is on their feet.

Just as those four young men refused to move from a lunch counter because segregation had stood for too long, this community was now standing up and deciding to be counted. Deciding that the new Jim Crow could not longer stand. They agreed that discriminating, isolating, and exploiting people who have been incarcerated is no longer acceptable. Moments like this is the reason I created Mass Story Lab.

In 2017, Mass Story Lab will travel to at least 8 cities including Miami, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Oakland, Detroit, and Boston. But we need your support to get there. Your donations will support each of these communities to host a lab, provide training for storytellers, and a listening session inside of prison so we can incorporate the visions, and dreams of our currently incarcerated community members. Will you stand with us?