The darting lines of courtroom sketches are often the only publicized depictions of closed criminal trials, presenting to news readers blurred pastel sketches of lawyers and the accused. In immigration court, another kind of trial takes place, also hidden from public view.
Inside Witness, a comic drawn and narrated by Stephen and Clio Reese Sady, melds the detached eyewitness perspective of a courtroom observer with the penetrating voice of the families and children stuck in the border’s legal gauntlet. The setting is the “family detention center” of Artesia, New Mexico, a place where migrant families were warehoused while pressing claims for humanitarian relief.
But much of the story isn’t about the setting of the facility. The narrative arc leaps into the imaginations of the parents and children waiting for their fate to be adjudicated. Still haunted by memories of trauma in their homelands–Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras–they rend heavy fears as the system dictates to them where they belong, the laws they broke, the borders they violated. But sometimes the antiseptic legal proceedings shade into the chiaroscuro of hope and resilience that they carry with them inside.
In Artesia’s eternal dusk, migrants stumble through the shadows of the law: “Unable to adequately articulate their claims, planeloads of refugees were sent back into harm’s way, with valid asylum claims never effectively advanced.”
The “heroes” of the comic are a group of volunteer lawyers who provide counsel as families wend through the asylum process. They work around the clock to gather their stories, drawing evidence of brutality and desperate hardship–domestic abuse, threats of violence from gangs, political or ethnic conflict–to build their legal claims. They translate a mother’s testimony of the stifling terror she experienced when weighing whether to “leave everything for the hope of safety for her and her child”–into a legal brief.
They encountered terror on this side of the border as well: the “hieleras,” or ice boxes, where families were held in biting-cold, dungeon-like spaces. Women recalled domineering treatment by officers, dehumanizing interrogations, the emotional strain of never knowing when they’ll be released or transferred to an unknown destination.
The story ends with the announcement of the closure of the Artesia center in late 2014, but the struggle will continue elsewhere. The narrative of Artesia unfolds in different iterations at every immigrant detention facility, each one churns with new migrants arrivals, new stories, each day. The real story isn’t in this place, it’s in the circuitous journey that the migrants trace in their imaginations: shifting between the present and past, assembling stories to justify their petition for relief, navigating the inside of a cage designed to offer “refuge.” The migrant figures don’t want to be trapped within the confines of the sketched frames, but the scenes they articulate thread together into a long testimony, and they begin writing their way outside the walls.
“My father Stephen Sady and I assisted legal volunteers dedicated to providing legal services to the hundreds of women and children detained in Artesia, New Mexico before the detention center’s closure in December 2014. The women came to the United States fleeing dangerous domestic violence predicaments and political murders that lead them to have nowhere to turn in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. I was able to draw women and children in the detention center during the televised court dates, and hope these images can bring the alarming human rights violations that take place in US detention centers to the American public’s attention.”
Clio Reese Sady is an illustrator and tattoo artist based in San Francisco. To donate to a charity organization dedicated to benefiting women and children who were incarcerated in Artesia, write restaurandovidasartesia [at] gmail [dot] com