SXSW exhibit gives visitors a child’s take on immigrant detention

SXSW exhibit gives visitors a child’s take on immigrant detention
Coutesy RAICES via CNN
Yocelyn Riojas is one of the artists behind the "hielera" at SXSW.

In a corner off to the side of the famed South by Southwest Music Festival this week, there’s a much different sound playing.

If you put your ear to a phone receiver in the little unfurnished room, you can hear a young girl, speaking in Spanish, describe how she and her family took their first steps on American soil seeking asylum. Instead of finding a refuge from violence in their home country, they were caught by men with dogs, handcuffed, and thrown in barren, frigid rooms filled with other detainees.

“It was extremely cold and I felt sick.

Sick with cold.

I couldn’t even feel pain it was so cold.

My head hurt.”

Some immigrants say they spend weeks in the ‘icebox’

The art exhibit shows how it feels to be processed in an CBP detention center in what many detained immigrants have called a hielera, or “icebox.” It’s a holding cell in which detainees are forced to endure severely cold temperatures for days on end, according to numerous reports by human rights groups.

The girl in the recording continues:

“I started to feel like I couldn’t hold on, I was sleeping too much, curled up, and my aunt and cousin they knocked on the windows — they were pounding — because I needed to go to the infirmary.”

Ana Maria Rea, a spokeswoman for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which sponsored the installation, told CNN her group had heard from countless immigrants who described the hielera as a common experience. She said children get sick with pneumonia and other illnesses because of the conditions.

One SXSW festival-goer, Uriel Ramos, told the organizers he was familiar with the conditions he found in the detention cell simulation, saying he’d spent “a month and a week” in a hielera. Another woman, said the exhibit caught her eye as she was walking by. In a video, she appeared tearful, telling RAICES, “As a child of illegal immigrants, I could never imagine myself or my family being in this situation.”

But US officials maintain that conditions are humane

Stephanie Malin, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection pointed CNN to the agency’s policies, updated in 2015, on how it handles immigrant detention. The document states that “when it is within CBP control, officers/agents should maintain hold room temperature within a reasonable and comfortable range for both detainees and officers/agents. Under no circumstances will officers/agents use temperature controls in a punitive manner.”

CBP also specifies that “regular hold room checks should be conducted and recorded to ensure proper occupancy levels, safety, hygiene, and the availability of drinking water” and that those detained “not be held for longer than 72 hours in CBP hold rooms or holding facilities.”

The artists are ‘children of the border’

Artists Yocelyn Riojas and Jerry Silguero teamed up to create the mock hielera.

Riojas told CNN that she and Silguero are both “children of the border,” and in their work they question what that means.

Riojas is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. She was born in Mexico but is a US citizen. Silguero, who was born in the US to migrant farmworker parents, grew up in the south Texas border town of Brownsville.

Growing up, they saw how being born on either side of the line brings a different fate.

Silguero created translucent sculptures of human children that populate their hielera, said he and Riojas hoped to bring inhumane conditions many never see “into the public space.” He used tape to create more vaguely defined figures without discernible identities, “as a metaphor for how they’re invisible to the public eye.”