Camilo Godoy, Part 1

Interviewer: Ella Boureau

In the Flesh: I’m sitting here on November 27th, 2012 with artist and activist Camilo Godoy who just received a Queer Art Mentorship fellowship with Carlos Motta for his work with immigrants in detention centers, specifically his Postcard Project where he sent postcards of the Statue of Liberty to the detainees he had forged relationships with and asked them to comment on this most famous symbol of freedom and migration. Camilo, why don’t you start by saying how this issue of detaining undocumented immigrants became so important to you?


Camilo Godoy: So for about 3 years I’ve been engaged with issues related to detention and deportation of migrants in the US. It started with my own identity as an immigrant and being a very privileged immigrant in the sense that I have always had the right papers to be here and there was never a question of my status. But I did go to school with people who were and are still undocumented and I understood the consequences of being an undocumented worker since I was very young. Then I had a boyfriend, Raddick, that was detained and deported at one point, and that was… it was seeing this person I loved—that I love— at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that’s when I for the first time ever saw “La Frontera”, the border, because I had never seen it legally. I had seen it culturally in the sense that I did not speak English, I was not a US born person and navigating US culture is very different for me. But legally, that was the first time I saw that border and that’s when I began to really understand the very troubling consequences of what a life as an undocumented worker in the United States is. Raddick was converted into a prisoner. This is a nation that builds itself on this logic of being a nation of immigrants, or rather, you know, the land of the free—

ITF: The melting pot, everyone who comes here is free to pursue happiness—

CG: Exactly. Anyway, Raddick was converted into this prisoner and that was the first time I had experience with the imprisonment of immigrants and what that meant. Because I saw it firsthand, before that it had just been on the news for me. That a lover could just… all of a sudden be taken away from me, because he lacked the proper papers to stay in this country, even though he had been here for a number of years and to him the US was home.

ITF: When was this?

CG: In 2010. February of 2010.

ITF: Oh, so not even three years ago. Where was he from?

CG: The Czech Republic. So anyway, my whole research and interest in immigrant rights really came through that personal experience. That this is what happens when someone is constructed as an illegitimate member of the US and therefore he or she is unsuitable to be here and undeserving of US citizenship. And so through those experiences I started, I mean it took me a while to go and start visiting detention centers, I met organizations that were organizing around this issue, all faith-based actually—

ITF: Can you name some of those organizations?

CG: Yeah, First Friends, Sojourner, American Friends Service Committee—

ITF: Quakers! [Laughs]

CG: Yeah, I mean Quakers are amazing. And um, I have a few friends who are immigration lawyers, and through those contacts I was added to these listserves, and I was very interested in the politics of immigration, the history of immigration, that very violent state practice that determines who gets in and who gets out and how that whole process is incredibly fucked up on so many levels.

ITF: Do you have a couple examples of either laws or moments in history that were really shocking to you, that sort of drew you in further?

CG: Well, yeah. I mean immigration law in general has been historically a racial system, a racist system. That explicitly excludes people on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, and how you are perceived by the “normal” eye. I think as far as laws, definitely the most well-known is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This idea that Asian American people will be excluded just on the basis that they are Asians. [The law ordered an absolute 10 year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration.  For the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities[1].] Definitely the—

ITF: Was this a national law?

CG: Yeah, I mean immigration law is federal law. And… There was this law, I’m thinking of the Queer Migrations timeline, a lot of this stuff is escaping me, but definitely laws that explicitly said, anyone that is perceived to be a psychopath, or a sexual deviant would be excluded. Even immigration restrictions that are more recent that essentially make it more difficult for undocumented people to even live while present in the US. Those would be laws like Arizona SB1070, Alabama HB56 [both laws require police to stop people they believe to be undocumented. Skin color is listed as one of the probable causes to stop someone. The idea is to make it so difficult for undocumented people to live in the US that they “self-deport” back to the country they left], and these laws that, you know, are very prohibitive. You know, HB56 for instance, when it first came out last year, it made it so difficult that even water companies were requesting state IDs for you pay your utility bill.

ITF: I heard about a woman who was trying to pick up a money transfer at a Walmart and the people at the desk wouldn’t let her pick up her money without an ID. And the woman was so confused because she had been getting money wired to her there for years, this had never been a problem before. And that kind of thing is not explicitly written into the law, but is a side effect of it. These people who take it upon themselves to enforce it where it is not even “legal” to do so. Like some kind of racist trigger has been pulled by putting this law into place.

CG: Yeah, I mean I think that what is interesting about this law is that… I mean the US has been designed by law, and these laws have constructed “savages” which were the Native Americans, “enemies”, which have always been the immigrants and those who are not able to be assimilated. But it is through that understanding of those laws that I came to be really engaged with immigrant rights. Advocating for immigrants to really achieve human rights for all. Through this, I came to start to visit immigrants in detention, and seeing people who haven’t really committed any crime, I mean, that’s not to say that prisoners who have committed crimes aren’t treated as.. whose—that’s not to say that those people…

ITF: Should be treated the way they are.

CG: Or should not have their rights protected. But when it comes to my whole entrance to this field of imprisonment, it came through this door of the “good immigrant” and the “good citizen”. I mean I’ll talk more about that, but, um, you know, Raddick, was a “good citizen”, not a criminal, only overstayed the visa, and was suddenly shackled to a cell, and then deported. And deportation is like, really, like a very disturbing thing to happen to your life. Literally you are just thrown out of a country where you live, Raddick had been living here for 8 years. He was thirty when he got deported. So almost his whole adult life. Anyways, I became very interested in seeing what happens to people when they are converted by law as undesirable, as illegitimate, as enemies, as criminals, as terrorists, as illegal. And I became friends to many people, and people who had nobody.

ITF: And did you start going by yourself to the detention centers, or how did you start doing that?

CG: I had avoided going to the detention center because for me, it is literally where a loved one last slept in the United States. The last place where a man that I love slept. In this private facility that is in the backwaters of New Jersey, totally invisible from life. So, I was added to some listserves because I wanted to do research and start becoming more active in this issue. And a lot of immigrant groups organize on Columbus Day to put in perspective the relationship between migration today and the migration of Christopher Columbus and the Europeans, and to really talk about migration. Because Columbus Day should be about migration and colonization and what brought people here and what happened after. So a lot of groups organize. And all these groups in New Jersey, mostly faith-based, have a vigil outside the detention center. At that time the biggest detention center in the tri-state area was Elizabeth Detention Center, which is where Raddick last slept. That facility is a private detention center, operated and managed by Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest prison contractors. It’s literally just this warehouse, where about 350 men and women live in indefinite detention until a judge orders them deported. In this windowless warehouse that was converted into a detention facility. When I say windowless, I mean windowless, there is only a skylight which you can go to on your break time and that’s it. The only light you get is aritificial light, the only air you get is artificial air and that’s it. These are people that are not serving time.

ITF: And didn’t you tell me, they can be held, since thee detainees are outside, technically, the prison system, they can be held for an indeterminate amount of time, even though they haven’t been charged with anything?

CG: Yeah, to be honest you can be held for as long as they want. I’ve met people who have been in there for almost a year, for almost two years. And are still fighting their case, in that whole bureaucratic nightmare of being trapped in a system that’s totally broken. So I went to this vigil, I walked from the train. It’s a nightmare getting there because it is literally Warehouseville, New Jersey. There’s only trucks and warehouses, not even sidewalks, because it’s literally a place where—

ITF: Humans don’t go.

CG: Right, humans don’t go. And there’s these you know, older people mostly, engaged in active citizenship, showing up on a Saturday, saying I care about this issue, and I’m here singing and holding this vigil because the people in there don’t have the privilege that I may have. Some of the people in the vigil are family members of people in there. I met this woman whose husband was in there and he had been tracked down by ICE, and taken from her, and her story was so similar to mine. You know, we both had people that we loved taken from us and now we were stuck in this nightmare. I ended up joining First Friends, an amazing faith-based group that gets people interested and makes them into volunteers and pairs people up with immigrants who have requested to be visited. So in a few weeks I was in a detention center. And the inside of the facility is decorated with hyper nationalist propaganda, like 9/11 images and “we will prevail” and—

ITF: Woah, really? They go to that extreme?

CG: Yeah. So I go in, and on my walk to my cubicle to meet with a prisoner, I see this baby touching his father’s hand through the glass. So there’s this awful experience of real life, that’s— so, to go see your father you have to go see him through this plexiglass, and talk to him through this phone that barely even works, for thirty minutes, all monitored. So then I talked to this gentleman from Central America, it was really typical, “ I have no case, but I’ve been here all my life, I speak English, etc.” and then a guard says time’s up and then you leave. You’ve just met a stranger, and you’ve left this stranger in these awful conditions. And you come back to the city and it’s like this really weird, odd experience where you’re just like…

ITF: Was that even real, did that just happen?

CG: Did that just happen? [Laughs] I did this for a while, where you go visit immigrants and then you would go out, back to New York… there is just this disconnect. We live in this free society, right, and literally hundreds of thousands of people, of immigrants specifically that I’m visiting, are just disintegrating in some detention center and do not need to be disintegrating in those detention centers because there’s alternatives to detention. As you begin to research this problem, you begin to find these private contracts, and all this need to make profit out of immigrant bodies. There’s all these companies that are just making money off of immigrants. That there’s phone companies profiteering from an immigrant making a call to his relative from Queens. That’s when I really began to understand the corporate aspect of detention.

ITF: Can you talk a little bit more specifically about that?

CG: Yeah, I mean to make a phone call was a ridiculous amount of money. The food is so disgusting in there that people go to the vending machines to get “better food”. Outrageous prices! You know outside, a can of Coke, I don’t know, a dollar, in there, two dollars. All these things. And these are people who, to begin with, are incredibly poor! Whose families have nothing, because the people being detained are mostly the breadgivers. You say breadgivers? No.

ITF: Breadwinners.

CG: Breadwinners, right, I never learned that! [Laughter] Sometimes I speak and I’m like, did I say that right? [Laughter] And I also have that book, it’s called The Breadwinners, it’s like that old immigrant, feminist—anyway I have it, I’ll give it to you. Usually it’s the fathers, right, this male figure, who’s in there.

ITF: Do you think that’s strategic on the part of ICE?

CG: I don’t know. I mean they also detain women, they also detain women, or detain the two parents so the kids end up in foster care.

ITF: So, you were talking about the corporate aspect.

CG: The corporate aspect. So, prisons work like hotels. If you have an empty hotel, you make no money. If you have 300 beds, you want them full every day. So immigration detention centers that are private, are literally just that. So you want your prison full, otherwise you are wasting resources because your prison has already been built, right?

ITF: Where are the resources coming from?

CG: The money is tax money. The government outsources to these companies to help them manage these institutions. I don’t know what the average cost per immigrant is, but I’ll never forget this guy, his name is Aslan Pervin, Pakistani in his late 40s, very smart guy working in a rug store, he understood this, he said “They’re making money out of me. Did you know that something like $100 a night, the government pays CCA [Corrections Corporate of America] for me to be here?” Um, and this is a guy that was saying this who had been in detention for three months just waiting to be deported. That was such an empowering thing for him to say, that he understood that. That he found logic out of that, and was like “This is totally absurd that I’m here, but I know it’s absurd and what can I do? I have no power. I am the immigrant, the alien who is being deported, and I can’t do anything about it, but I can tell you this”. There’s a ton of research from all these non-profits and bloggers that detention of an immigrant is like $100-$150 a day. There’s food involved, transportation involved, the government has to buy airplane tickets from airlines. I mean there are ICE airlines that literally just fill a whole flight with Central American citizens and leave them at various drop-off points. But anyway, the food aspect is really powerful because if you have some money you can go to the commissary, where you can get better food, better things, you can get shampoo, a little Head and Shoulders, so even in there class is replicated in all these ways. If you have a little something you may buy something. But people are incredibly humble in there. People share things. They leave things behind. They create their own sort of market, not selling each other things necessarily but trading things. An exchange of knowledge too, people were learning languages, the immigrant who is bilingual helps the others navigate English. But to understand imprisonment in general, we have to understand that it is a corporation, there is a profit to be had. There are people investing in the imprisonment of others.

ITF: Yeah. I think I never really understood the idea of corporate welfare so much as with this example, where we are literally giving our tax money to these corporations so they can make a profit off making other people’s lives worse. And that this benefits nobody except a very small group of people. But that they funnel that money from us.

CG: Yeah, yeah. And our lawmakers, I mean with Arizona SB1070, Governor Jan Brewer, all of her administration, all of it, highly connected with CCA, highly connected with the prison system. So, why do we pass laws that essentially make more criminals? Because we need them to sustain that system of incarceration. So that’s the profit side. I remember leaving the detention center and coming back to Manhattan in a total depression. You try to make sense of this, and there’s no sense, it makes no sense. [Laughter]. We know that there are more humane alternatives. Like ankle monitors, which is certainly better, but there is the stigma of living everyday and going to work with this object on your body that you have to charge otherwise the thing starts beeping and immigration comes to you. So you are still under constant surveillance. I met this woman who I went shopping with so she could buy pants that were… bota campana, eh,

ITF: Bell-bottoms?

CG: Oh, that makes sense. Yeah, bell-bottoms. And so she was telling me “I have to buy bell-bottoms to cover the ankle monitor so that my work doesn’t find out”. So it’s absurd but it’s an alternative. But it’s also another product that can be profited on. You know, surveillance is a huge business.

ITF: So are there alternatives that you find more inspiring and humane?

CG: I mean, yeah, people should not be detained. I’ve never gone through it. I can’t imagine going through that subordination. What are we doing to people? Anyone who has made it to NYC, or anywhere crossing the border into the United States deserves a trophy. Everyone you talk to, the stories that undocumented immigrants share, is a journey that’s deadly. For women in particular. I forget what we were talking about before.

ITF: [Laughs] Well, we were talking about alternatives.

CG: Right. So, no detention. There’s no need for these people to be in detention. Some people advocate for these ankle monitors. That’s not an alternative to detention though, that’s just another way to detain, because you are like cattle. Some alternatives that are not really considered is to have these faith-based groups working with undocumented immigrants and making sure that they show up for their court date. There are organizations who are willing to do this. Which eliminates the need for detention, right? Because the reason for detention stems from this belief that once you enter deportation proceedings, you won’t report to your judge, you won’t show up for your court date. Which does happen, for a variety of reasons. So in order to force people to report, you’ll just detain them, because that’s so much easier. [Laughter]. So there are all these organizations and churches that are willing to do the job that law enforcement is trying to do. Which is to accompany the person to report to his or her case. That works. But also we have to question the need to deport. Why are you deporting someone who already made it here who may be working, who are a part of society. We should embrace their presence here. So in my world, I would stop deportation. I would say you’re here and you’re a legitimate member of this society no matter if you don’t have the blue passport, no matter if you don’t have the social security, you’re here and you deserve all the rights that I have. You know? Education, the right to work, you’re here. So rather than framing ourselves in this pathetic nationalist, patriotic framework of “American citizen”, we should be imagining ourselves as global. That there is no difference between me and the Pakistani man that I met a year ago, who told me so eloquently how his body was a dollar sign to a company in this country. Detaining doesn’t work and it will never work. We need to address that there is poverty around the world and in the United States, we need to address the policies of the United States government abroad, that they affect the way people live.

ITF: Right, why do people have to leave their homes in the first place?

CG: Exactly. We don’t address poverty in these places. We don’t address… like… war.

ITF: [Laughter]

CG: You know? [Laughing]

ITF: So what communities do you see that understand the fact that having a nationalist politic is very limiting to a freedom vision? I mean it’s not a new concept at all, but it seems that there’s this flurry of understanding in the queer community that nationalism is not about freedom for all, and especially with queer people there is the potential to understand bonding beyond borders, do you find that that’s true? Do you find that queer communities are most responsive to this intersectional approach?

CG: Oh, totally. Absolutely. All of my immigrant mobilization and activism was mainly with faith-based groups who are radical to begin with. Who are doing work that is very progressive for the institutions that they are affiliated with. That’s not to say that their politics can’t get very exclusive and very like, regressive to the freedom of all. Or full citizenship for all. The campaigns are largely constructed around the “good immigrant”. The biggest slogan is “We’re not criminals”. This idea that we are not criminals does not interrogate the idea of being a criminal. A lot of these groups don’t examine that. Or don’t engage with the prison system at large and how it affects non-white communities. On the other hand, a queer framework around prisons, and around citizenship, really engages on the core of a lot of these issues. All these campaigns are the good heterosexual couple that have two US citizen children, you know, the framework is built to please an uncomfortable white person. And to me it’s absurd, absurd, absurd. Instead we should be forging relationships with the relatives of “criminals”. I mean what would it mean for the Latino community to engage with the African American community? I mean there’s Latinos who are serving time with African Americans in jail, but I’m interested in making bridges between the “good immigrant” and the “criminal” because these terms are racialized.

ITF: Yes. I think there is a huge potential for building bridges, especially when you are fighting against such literal things as borders and walls.

CG: Yeah, I think that’s what a queer subject does. The borders of our bodies and the larger concept of borders. We ask those questions and we know that it’s not so simple. And a lot of these immigrant campaigns are very simple. In the sense that they advocate for the “good person” who deserves everything. But that those who don’t fit that model, should be left out. We should question criminality and the notion of the criminal more often. That most of the criminals in our system are non-violent. That very racist logics have made criminals out of so many people in our communities, so that they are disenfranchised and can’t participate.

ITF: [Sighs] Life.

CG: Life.

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[1]from the Our Documents website. Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882.