By Caitlin Cruz
On April 6, 2018, the Trump administration introduced a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy aimed in particular at the U.S.-Mexico border, which resulted, among other things, in the separation of children from their families. Adults were charged with criminal offenses of illegal entry, instead of civil offenses, and detained in detention facilities where people — including young children — were huddled together in freezing-cold cages. At the height of the crisis during the spring and summer of last year, it was hard to ignore the disturbing images of these conditions obtained through strict media tours of the facilities. By executive order, the Trump administration eventually rescinded the zero-tolerance policy that resulted in family separations (to dubious results) on June 20, 2018, but reports of the hieleras, or ice boxes, didn’t go away.
However, these detention techniques were not new. In February 2018, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the experiences of 110 women and children detained in U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding cells about the conditions: lowered temperatures, confiscated sweaters and clothing layers, a Mylar blanket for warmth. Only now is the world finally paying attention to the plight of migrants on the southern border. This is why RAICES, a non-profit organization that provides free or low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees and one of the leading voices on family reunification, opened a new art installation in the middle of Austin, Texas, just in time for the city’s megapopular SXSW festival. (If you’re in Austin, the installation is at 308 Guadalupe Street.)
Austin-based artists Yocelyn Riojas and Jerry Silguero created an 8-foot-by-20-foot hielera, complete with a cooling device that lowers the temperature by at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit. When you enter the hielera, you’re immediately met by sculptures of young children (about 8- or 9-year-olds) constructed out of packing tape with anonymous white masks on their faces. These lit sculptures are sitting on benches and laying on the ground, surrounded by flowers.
“These sculptures are transparent to represent the loss of identity of this very oppressed community,” Silguero tells MTV News. “We want to keep them anonymous. The tape creates a ghost-like feel.”
Even harder to ignore is the audio playing inside the space, that of a young child describing their experience in U.S. custody, including time in a detention similar to the recreated hielera. (RAICES declined to give more identifying details to protect the child’s privacy.) The child describes being chased by a dog, apprehended by a Border Patrol agent, and being handcuffed to her family members. “From there we stayed sitting and they would take other people and we were there waiting to be picked up to be taken to the hielera,” the girl says in Spanish. (For those who don’t understand spoken Spanish, there will be an English translation projected onto the wall.)
The girl talks about how she was separated from her brother and put into a cramped room with other detained people. “I wouldn’t lay down. I couldn’t sleep because the place was long and wide,” the girl says. “On the ground there was nothing for us to lay down on, and it felt frozen.”
The young girl goes on to describe her depression and boredom, nausea and fever, chills and hunger. Her experience is not unique, according to Ana Maria Rea of RAICES, who adds that the audio gives back some agency to these detained people.
“What we want people to understand is at the level of apprehension is that we are human,” Rea tells MTV News of the inspiration for the installation. “Where they are being kept is inhumane and not okay.”
Silguero and Riojas want attendees to not be able to look away, so they made the sculptures to illustrate the lived experience of detained migrant people.
“We don’t know who these kids are, what their stories are, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Silguero said. “I wanted to create them on a three-dimensional space so it was harder to ignore. You can’t change the channel. It’s present, it’s physical, and it’s impossible to ignore.”
In conjunction with the installation, RAICES announced their #AbolishICEBox campaign, which petitions U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP to stop holding detained persons in cold rooms.
“In this particular administration, the violations that have happened are egregious,” Rea tells MTV News. “We want policy change, congressional action. We’ve experienced what this democracy can do in terms of voices. We can push for congressional action and policy change for the clients we serve. A big goal of putting this platform out there is to eventually get our policymakers and congressional members to make a difference in this human rights issue.”
It was also crucial to the artists that the installation highlights the ways in which immigration issues affect people of all races and ethnicities, not only Latinx people (despite the Trump administration’s focus on Mexican and other Latinx people at the U.S.-Mexico border). When you leave the hielera, attendees can see a six-foot-tall yellow mural featuring nearly two dozen people holding banners that bear messages like “My Dreams Are Not Illegal” and “Stop Separating Families,” as well as a chain-link fence covered in yellow bandanas. “This issue is affecting a lot of different communities,” Riojas tells MTV News.
To that end, the group is inviting visitors to write about what immigration means to them on the bandanas. If you’re unable to visit the free installation in Austin, Rea says you can still get involved by tweeting #AbolishICEBox and calling your representatives to urge for Congress to take action against this practice.
For Riojas and Silguero, art is their way of speaking up. “The way I know how to fight back and represent my community and retaliate is my art,’ Silguero tells MTV News. “We just want to put this on blast and make sure people are talking about issues important to everyone. We’re not here to be ignored.”