Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

By JIM McKEEVER

I won’t give you their names, but names shouldn’t matter anyway. 

They are voices at the other end of a phone call, faceless men ages 18 to 48, who tell me their stories in 60, 90 minutes. We say good-bye, I wish them luck and I have no idea what happens to them after that.

These men tell me horrific stories of threats, beatings, guns, machetes, death, lost friends and loved ones. Sometimes they cry, these men often stereotyped as macho Latinos or “bad hombres.” 

Who are these men? 

Sons, brothers, fathers who break down when talking about the 7-year-old child they left behind, their mothers and sisters back home hiding from gangs, the newborn son they have yet to see, the family farm they had to flee when men killed all their animals and said, “You’re next.”

These traumatized men call me — actually, their captors call me and put the men on the phone — from detention centers in the U.S., because the captors who make a living this way are bound by law to allow phone calls for legal assistance. 

The captors comply (most of the time). Is it out of the goodness of their hearts, their humanity?

Or is it because it keeps the watchdog advocates and prying journalists at bay, doesn’t jeopardize the revenue stream to the detention centers, the private corporations and stockholders raking in millions from government-sanctioned human trafficking?

I listen to the men’s stories. I try to visualize their faces as they tell me of pressure to join gangs, of participating in street protests against corrupt governments and police, of getting robbed in one Central American country or another en route to Mexico and to the locked-and-loaded southern border of the United States of America.

For the most part I focus on getting as many details as I can, facts that can help them in their asylum applications, crucial information I add to the forms I send to lawyers who work pro bono to uphold international and U.S. law, who value human rights more than billable hours.

As much as I try to visualize the faces of these migrants, I can’t. Maybe it’s self-preservation. These calls take a toll; their stories haunt me, as do the inhumane conditions they are forced to endure in detention.

The recurring image I have is of a faceless, brown-skinned man sitting at a bare table in a cold room under harsh fluorescent lights, wearing an orange or blue demeaning outfit they are forced to wear. 

These men are incredibly polite, never show impatience with me despite the difficulty I often have understanding their Spanish and accents, which vary depending on their country of origin.

These men are desperate, and they hope I can connect them with dedicated lawyers who may take their case and, with luck, reunite them with their family or a sponsor in the land of the free. For most of these men, this literally is a matter of life and death. 

Can you visualize these men? 

Whatever your political leanings, can you stop for a moment and consider that there are tens of thousands of men and women behind concertina wire in American detention centers? And thousands of other men, women and children trying to survive in shelters and on the streets at our doorstep just over the border in Mexico?

Can you see them? If not their faces, can you at least picture human beings — not “aliens,” as our government calls them — breaking down in tears as they relive trauma they are trying to escape and forget?

If you cannot, you’ll never know that these men even exist.

And if you don’t know or don’t care that they exist, it’s not just their loss. It’s yours.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. If anyone is curious about volunteering for the legal assistance volunteer program described above, please e-mail the author at contactdecency@gmail.com.

 

13 thoughts on “The voices at the other end

  1. Jim McKeever says:

    Reblogged this on Jim McKeever and commented:

    As much as I try to visualize the faces of these migrants, I can’t. Maybe it’s self-preservation. These calls take a toll. Their stories haunt me.

    Like

    1. William Sunderlin says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful and poignant essay, Jim. What would it take to make these invisible human beings more visible? How much would it help in fulfilling their goals and dreams? Are there down sides to visibility? I look forward to talking about this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jim McKeever says:

        Those are all great questions, William. The challenge is showing their humanity without jeopardizing their safety. A practical — yet cynical — method is to point out the economic benefits these folks provide (doing work that few Americans want to do, paying taxes, not receiving benefits, etc.). Even then, many among us won’t see the humanity. We have a long way to go, and it’s uphill.

        Like

  2. Daniel Gabel says:

    Damn, Jim. That is heartbreaking and beautiful. Thank you. Powerful.

    Dan Gabel Co-Founder and President, Peghead Nation Dan@Pegheadnation.com

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you very much, Dan.

      Like

  3. beth says:

    I can understand how haunting this could be. very poignant and powerful

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you very much, Beth.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. beautifully written, deeply moving and very carefully researched.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Mary. I hope all is well with you.

      Like

  5. tonalist says:

    Thank you Jim for such an insightful look into these lives which are so deliberately kept out of the public’s view. Invisible prisoners held by an unaccountable entity is a sure recipe for abuse and denigration. I’m always in awe of your dedication and hard work on behalf of migrants. Thank you for all that you do and please stay safe!

    On Wed, Jan 19, 2022 at 10:10 AM Sense of Decency wrote:

    > Jim McKeever posted: ” Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY. > Photo © Michelle Gabel. By JIM McKEEVER I won’t give you their names, but > names shouldn’t matter anyway. They are voices at the other end of a phone > call, faceless men ages 18 to 48, who t” >

    Like

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Bill, and I hope all is well with you. Keep us posted on what you’re up to!

      Like

  6. Katherine Polhamus says:

    What a powerful reflection you shared with us. Thank you. I wish more people could see the gentleness and incredible strength and perseverance these people have faced. It is heart breaking. Thank you for your commitment and devotion to these people who have suffered too long at the hands of the US government.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Katherine. It is maddening and a real struggle to retain any shred of optimism. I am extremely disappointed in the Biden administration, but of course we know it would be worse otherwise. And could be again.

      Like

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