“Liberty Denied: Immigration, Detention, Deportation” an exhibition


This exhibition co curated by myself and Mark Auslander, Asociate Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies is at the Museum of Culture and Environment, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Wa until December 10, 2016

Wed to Fri 11-4 and Sat 10-3


Cecilia Concepción Álvarez
Con Las Esperanzas de Vida
acrylic on canvas 2016
“In this piece I attempt to spotlight the horrific conditions that refugees from violence suffer in detention centers. We the American taxpayers subsidize these for profit detention centers with our taxes. These detention centers predominantly incarcerate refugees from Mexico and Central America. These people are held indefinitely in deplorable, dehumanizing conditions and subjected to the same type of violence they were fleeing from in their home countries. These peoples’ migration has been spurred by the violence created by USA drug addiction, arms sales and USA policies/CIA/Corporate destabilization of their governments.
In order to heal the wounds of capitalistic colonialism, we need to be honest and interested in creating a discourse and action plan that confronts the violence. We need to examine our part in creating this sorry state of affairs.
In my artwork I attempt to bring to light the parts of our society that are rendered invisible/without value; in a visual vernacular that does not use violence as a symbol of power/excellence. Each person held without legal recourse has a story and a reason to flee. They come here with the hope of life.”



Art Hazelwood Drug War Free Trade


Immigrants arrive in the United States with hopes of a better life. Coming from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, they are driven to leave their homes by the forces of free trade that bankrupt small farmers, climate change which devastates crops, by gang warfare, and drug mafias, some of which are referenced in Art Hazelwood’s incredible print. Note especially that the field, the ground is filled with skulls!


Those who do not cooperate with gangs and drug dealing are personally in grave danger even in their own homes. As a result, brave migrants cross harsh deserts for thousands of miles by train, truck, car and foot to cross into the United States in hopes of a safer life in which they can earn a living and support the family they have left behind.


The Border Wall Divides All Life


Art Hazelwood Security

The border is today a militarized zone that divides not only families, but also animals and all life, as seen here in Art Hazelwood’s prints


Since numerous obstacles make legal migration possible only for the most privileged, migrants must pay thousands of dollars to coyotes to help them cross the border without papers. Once here, they often miss deadlines for applications because of constant moves, making documentation impossible once again.


Our farms require the hard work of migrant laborers, too hard for most of us. Capitalism invites them in, and then beats them down.As a result of their undocumented status, immigrant workers are frequently forced to live in unsafe conditions, suffer abuse on the job, or shortchanged on their pay.


Deborah Faye Lawrence Welcome to the NW Detention Center

The collaged text on Lawrence’s work reads

“Welcome to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Our ample 277,000 sq.ft. facility stands in Tacoma’s Tide Flats- a highly toxic superfund site; A Tsunami and Lohar zone that’s visible from the museums of art, history and glass. Even if you and your family have lived and worked in the US for years, you are now a prisoner of the U.S. slated for deportation. You may or may not have access to legal counsel or a translator or news! To clarify security, detainee jumpsuit colors have changed! Now your Red uniform= high risk. Orange=medium risk. Green=medium to low risk. Blue=low risk. Segregation by color helps you see that other detainees cannot be trusted. So don’t talk to them or join their hunger strikes!”


When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) identify undocumented immigrants, often as a result of a minor traffic violation or racial profiling, they put them in detention. Over 30,000 immigrants are detained in 200 detention centers nationwide. With over 1500 beds, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, run by the for-profit GEO Corporation under a contract with ICE, is one of the largest in the country. The detainees live in inhumane and illegal conditions with no privacy, poor health care, no outdoor exercise and terrible food. They are forced to do the work of the center for 1$ a day no matter how many hours they work.

Since lack of documentation is a civil offense, detainees have none of the rights provided by our criminal justice system.  Their only option is to attain “relief” through pro bono lawyers such as those at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. A judge decides the case, without a jury. Many of the cases drag on for months and years. Deportees are taken to buses often in the middle of the night and returned to countries in which they have often never lived or left many years ago, leaving behind families in the US.



The artists in “Liberty Denied”  explore some of these experiences.  Blanca Santander speaks of the jolting cultural adjustments of immigration, but celebrates the strength of women who survive it.


Carino del Rosario reveals the ironies and absurdities of passports as a means of identification.




Cecilia  Alvarez represents the suffering of families separated by detention and deportation. (see her statement at top of post)


Tatiana Garmendia, originally from Cuba, describes her own family’s experience of torture in detention, sewn painfully into a blanket. That is the artist with me next to the chair.




Doug Minkler pointedly depicts the cruel contradiction of our current attitude to immigrants.




Jen Sorensen tells the story of immigrant activist Danilo Lopez and

Daniel P. Mendez-Moore outlines the hypocrisy of public policy.


Three works were originally commissioned by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian-Pacific American Experience in Seattle as the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) building in Seattle

(which held 230 people and also serviced people who wanted to become naturalized) was vacated for the new facility in Tacoma

(which holds over 1500 people in even worse conditions with only housing provided, no windows, no privacy).


Dean Wong’s haunting photographs document the empty, eerie building. Robb Kunz provides brief segments from interviews with immigrants about their experiences.


Christian French gives us the “INS Game,” the arbitrary process of acquiring legal status, still embedded in the floor of the INS building, here adapted as a card game.christian-french-4-misplaced-application-449x451christian-french-588x545christian-french-3-567x541



Manuel Rios speaks of Identity Theft in his disturbing painting of a blindfolded person against barbed wire, suggesting both the act of immigration and the fearful aftermath.



Eroyn Franklin, in a fold out book format, follows the lives of two detainees in detail, Many Uch, in the old INS building, and Gabriella Cubillos (Gabi) in the Northwest Detention Center, both during their detention and after their release.



Last, detainees themselves make art to pass the endless time in a detention center with no programming, no courses to take, no recreation, nothing to do, except being forced to work as virtual slave labor for $1. per day no matter how many hours they work. These amazing purses come from Pavel Bahmatov. They are made of wrappers of ramen cut with dental floss, painstakingly woven together.


Pavel Bahmatov



The exhibition opening included a former detainee speaking forcefully of the dreadful conditions at the Northwest Detention Center, as well as students who are currently protected by DACA, delayed action for childhood arrivals, who spoke through surrogates to protect their identity.



The purpose of the exhibition is to shed light on the nightmares of immigration, as well as the positive contribution that immigrants make to this country. It also makes reference to the larger political and economic realities.


“Liberty Denied” is paired at the Museum of Culture and Environment with a stunning exhibition of Arpilleras, “Tapestries of Hope,” created by the mothers of the disappeared in many cases from the clothing of the disappeared. This private collection of works belonging to Marjorie Argosin includes detailed and poignant imagery.  The experiences of the families of the disappeared make haunting parallels to the nightmares that today’s immigrants and their families experience during Immigration Raids, then arbitrary detentions and deportations  In Chile though there have been tribunals and even monuments to the crimes of those years. Perhaps someday the US will recognize that it is committing the same crimes.


The children left behind


Scenes of Torture


Taken Away


No to Impunity