Essentially Prisoners

Essentially Prisoners

When care and support is contingent on surveillance and compliance.


On the morning of May 28, Sarah DeYoreo sent the following email to the 500-plus employees of Morrison Child & Family Services, where DeYoreo worked as a “Milieu Counselor” with unaccompanied immigrant children in Portland, Oregon.

Dear Morrison Staff and Coworkers,

I have worked as a Milieu Counselor with Morrison Child & Family Services – Long-Term Group Home (LTGH) for approximately 4½ months. When I took this job in January, I was under the impression that my job as an MC would be to provide care and support to teenage youth who had recently immigrated to the United States with no accompanying parents or guardians. Very quickly, however, it became clear to me that my job was largely one of enforcement and policing: to track, survey, and monitor the “minors” in our care in the service of state control and power. I recognize that a lot of this is not up to Morrison: for example, the policies around tracking and monitoring, which I find absolutely abhorrent, are determined by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and we at LTGH are required to follow them. However, I do believe that it matters how we talk about these things, and how we understand and frame what we’re doing here. I recently heard a Morrison administrative staff cheerfully explaining to a new Case Manager that we are here to care for these kids and to make sure they are safe. More recently still, I received an email from our Program Director congratulating us on “impacting soooo many lives each and every day”—implying that this impact is a positive thing. These are lies. It is a lie and indignity to pretend—to ourselves, and to the kids we try to serve—that we are here to care for and support these kids, to “protect” them and keep them safe, without also acknowledging—again, to ourselves, and to the kids we serve—that we are here to track and police them on behalf of the federal government. Most of us, from what I have gathered, do not want to be here to do this second part of the job, and that creates significant stress and internal conflict for many of us—conflict that we do not feel we can share/talk about, given the public attitudes of most of those in higher management/administration (see above), who seem determined to ignore, obscure, and repress the darker side of what we are doing here.

So, I will just say it: the truth is, these kids are not free, in a very basic way. We give them cellphones, which enable us to track their locations at all times, and which we monitor nightly for unwanted activity. We allow them to go on self-outings, but only if they tell us exactly where they are going and are trackable by cellphone. We conduct daily searches of their rooms. We count them every fifteen minutes and document them as though they are numbers, not people. If they do not abide by these requirements—for example, by turning off their cellphone tracking, or by running away—we are required to contact law and immigration enforcement. In other words, we pretend to give them privileges, to grant them freedoms, but those are entirely predicated on their submission to a system in which they are essentially prisoners.

At the same time, we position ourselves as mentors to these kids, and we talk about supporting and caring for them. We try to build relationships with them. We encourage them to confide in us. In short, we ask them to trust us. But why should they trust us, when we place exactly zero trust in them?—when we show them this every hour of every day by monitoring, tracking, and surveying them? When they seem upset or depressed or defiant or disrespectful, we ask why, and we have meetings with them, we give them “consequences,” we suggest they see a clinician, we talk about respect and behavior management and teaching them how to be good citizens and good members of their communities. We do not talk about the giant elephant in the room, which is the fact that these kids have come to us with backgrounds of trauma (the accumulated traumas of violence in their home countries, which largely stem from the legacies of European colonization and American racism/white supremacy/neocolonialism/political interference/capitalist exploitation/the “War on Drugs,” etc.; violence in their families and personal lives, which are tied to these larger cultural and historical traumas; the trauma of making the journey up through Central America and Mexico and across the border on their own; the trauma of being apprehended by ICE or Border Patrol; the trauma of being kids separated from their families and communities), only to be firmly placed at the center of another kind of trauma: that of US Immigration Detention, which is technically what LTGH is.

One thing I have come to understand during my time here is that these kids are absolutely in need of care and support. However, as long as the care and support we provide is contingent on their compliance with a system that seeks to render them utterly and truly powerless, they will continue to feel like prisoners, they will continue to resent and distrust us, and they will continue to cope with and respond to their real and perceived imprisonment by emotionally/psychologically withdrawing, acting out in defiance, or running away.

If we really want to help these kids in whichever ways we can—and I believe, in spite of all the above, that there are many of us here who do want to do this—I suggest we start by being honest with them. Their situation is complicated, I am not suggesting it is not. Their choices are limited; they are: 1) submit to the rules of this program, ORR, and U.S. Immigration in order to (eventually, possibly) get documentation in the U.S.; 2) choose to be deported to their home countries, and live under the conditions there (see above explanation for some of these conditions); 3) choose to escape the system and live and work in the U.S. without documentation, knowing that their options for education and jobs will be limited, knowing that they will have to live more or less under the radar, knowing that they could be apprehended and deported at any time, without their possessions, without their families. None of these are good choices, but they are the choices that are available to them. There is also a fourth choice, and it is a choice that I hope some of them make: to fight the injustices of this system with all of the power and strength and care and creativity and vitality they have—and remarkably, to their credit, they have a lot—and to work with others in similar positions to dismantle and change it.

It is not up to me or anyone else at Morrison to decide which combination of these choices these kids make—their lives are not my life, and it is not possible for me (a white, English-speaking American, born into a nexus of immense racial and socioeconomic privilege) to know or imagine what it is like to be in their position. I can, however, give them information that will support them in making informed decisions about their lives. I can make sure they know what they are up against, so that they are prepared to resist or cope with it, so that they are prepared to fight. We do them and ourselves an enormous disservice by not being honest about these things, by pretending to support and care for them while quietly robbing them of any power they have. The simplest way to disempower people is to convince them of their own disempowerment, and I believe that this is exactly what we do when we are not honest with these kids; when we assure them that we have their best interests at heart; when we convince them that their best and only option is to comply, to follow the rules, to submit; when we convince them that they are trapped.

They are not trapped. We recently had two boys run away from the program—many of you likely know about this—and my first thought was: good for them. Good for them for not buying into the lie that they have no power. Good for them for refusing to submit. I don't pretend to know what the best choice for these boys would have been, and I recognize that their decision to leave will present its own set of challenges. If there is any regret I have, though, it is not being able to talk and strategize with them about their plan to leave, about what they would do afterward, about locating resources and finding networks to join, about how I could help them—if at all.

What if this was what our care and support looked like? What if it was not about imprisoning these kids, but about trying to support them in whichever decisions they make—even if those decisions go directly against ORR policy? Even if they are not the decisions we ourselves would make?

I intend to put in my two-weeks’ notice with Morrison in the next week or so, although I suspect this letter may get me fired before that time arrives. I also suspect that the organization may try to retract or erase this email; censorship tends to look appealing when institutional control is at risk. Before that happens, I ask any of you who are willing to copy and paste this message, to consider replacing any direct references to Morrison/LTGH with asterisks (better to give them fewer reasons to come after you), and to share it widely with your various social networks/communities (with or without my name attached, and at your own risk—I expect Morrison will not be very excited about this idea). Also, feel free to reach out to my personal email: I would love to talk.

I think fear and silence in the face of injustice only help to perpetuate it. I am not afraid. I refuse to be silent.

Sarah DeYoreo

DeYoreo’s prediction at the end of the letter proved correct:

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Sarah DeYoreo is a writer, educator, and social activist living in Portland, Oregon. She is an advocate for racial equity and intersectional social justice.

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