Denver’s Museo de las Americas unveiled its latest art installation, Detention Nation, at an open house Thursday night. The exhibit features works from Sin Huellas, a Texas/Mexico art collective, and seeks to show visitors the harsh realities of U.S. immigration detention facilities.
Housed in white rooms with high ceilings, the exhibit is separated from the rest of the museum by a tall, chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. There are security cameras and intermittent alarms.
Inside, a few bunk beds and floor mattresses belie the crowded conditions detainees often face. Indigo bedsheets with stark white silhouettes show bodies with arms outstretched, or huddled, or clutching children.
Atop the mattresses are haunting figures sculpted from mylar, a nod to the silver emergency blankets border patrol gives to those it captures.
Next to these figures, the things they carry: a Bible, a rosary, a pacifier.
Detention Nation, which will remain on display until May, puts a spotlight on what many consider to be an inhumane immigration policy: Each day, thousands of people are detained — and treated like criminals — for the act of crossing a political line.
The walls display letters from previous detainees, who describe their frustration. “Detainee Name is suppose (sic) to be el nombre del detenido not nombre del delincuente,” says one, protesting a form’s incorrect translation. Detenido means detained. Delincuente means criminal.
On Monday this week, the eve of Obama’s final budget announcement, dozens of activists, immigrants and community members gathered outside a detention facility in Aurora to protest the federally mandated detention bed quota.
Passed in 2009, the mandate requires that all detention facilities nationwide fill every bed, every night. That means 34,000 people are kept locked up each day, many for acts like speeding or driving without proof of insurance. The facility in Aurora is tasked with filling each of its 525 beds.
Plenty of people argue that the detention system is necessary to ensure deportations, and some urge even stricter enforcement. But immigration rights activists say detaining people based on an arbitrary quota is unconscionable.
Also unconscionable, they say, is that the majority of detention facilities are privately owned and operated. The GEO Group, which owns the Aurora facility and is the second largest for-profit prison operator in the U.S., doubled the number of facilities it operates after the quota was passed. Its net income in 2011 was more than $70 million.
The effects of the quota-based, for-profit detention system sink in when one considers the Museo de las Americas’ latest challenge. The current exhibit is open through spring, which is high season for field trips. Korrine Salas Young, the museum’s education coordinator, is always looking to improve young visitors’ experiences, but this installation has made her particularly reflective.
Past exhibits, she says, have always focused on artists, or on social movements of the past.
When school children from the Denver area visit Detention Nation, there’s a good chance many of them will be revisiting an experience they’ve already lived.
Detention Nation runs through May 27 at the Museo de las Americas.
Photo credit: Kelsey Ray