What began as a casual gathering of friends has become a first-of-its-kind living archive of handwritten letters shared by hundreds of asylum seekers detained along the U.S.-Mexico border. Those letters, in the collective correspondence, provide a detailed description of each person’s path to pursuing asylum, and the conditions inside detention centers.
It was the summer of 2018. Joanna Brooks, San Diego State University associate vice president for Faculty Advancement, and Jennifer Gonzalez, a legal communicator with expertise in immigration, had organized with friends and neighbors a grassroots group, named Detainee Allies. The group has provided support for refugees arriving at Tijuana, Mexico, from Central America, at a time when more and more migrants were being held in privately-run prisons.
“We realized that hundreds of refugees were being detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center, just 25 miles south of campus,” Brooks said.
Gonzalez and Brooks, along with colleagues from SDSU, friends and neighbors, sat with the weight of the refugee crisis unfolding at the border. They were deeply saddened but had that heart-and-stomach-felt compulsion that kept saying, “Do something.”
They found a way through the U.S. Postal Service.
“Both for the SDSU faculty involved and for our volunteers, the goal has always been to lift up the stories of the people inside the black box at the border,” said Brooks, also a SDSU professor of English and comparative literature.
That letter-writing effort has also become a major research and archival project involving the SDSU Library, whose Digital Collections team is digitizing hundreds of pages of letters. All told, more than 500 letters have been exchanged to date. To support the library initiative, which includes continued archiving, a new fund has been established.
While the letter-writing initiative began with individuals from Honduras, the collection includes letters written by people from around the world, including countries such as Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Colombia, Cameroon, El Salvador, Ukraine, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela, among others – all of whom are now or have been detained at Otay Mesa.“This is unique archive because it is happening now,” said SDSU University Archivist Amanda Lanthorne.
The SDSU Library continues to digitize each individual letter as part of the new archive. The letters have been redacted to protect the identity of their authors.“Because we are committed to information literacy and lifelong learning, and creating global citizens, it is imperative to archive these detainee letters and make them available,” said Patrick McCarthy, interim dean of the SDSU Library. “They will inform current and future conversations about immigration, refugee culture, the lives of migrants and asylum seekers, and San Diego as a key player in these interwoven topics.”