16 Months in Hell

Book cover
The Power of Loveby By Ana Amalia Guzmán Molina, trans. by Marilu McCarthyEPICA. 240p $14.95

Imagine this nightmare scenario: On a beautiful day in Southern California, you have just dropped off your children at school. On your return, just a block from your home, a police car approaches and flashes its lights for you to stop. When you do, an officer handcuffs you and drives back to your home, where six armed men from other cars enter the house. There, “they burst into the bedroom, arrested my husband, searched everything, and confiscated his passport” as well as hers. These words of Ana Amalia Guzmán Molina reflect not just her own experience, but also that of thousands of other immigrants taken into custody by what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

Ms. Guzmán Molina, a native of El Salvador who attended the University of Central America there, was far luckier than most, not least because of her education. Starting in 1999, she and her husband, Gil—also a native of El Salvador—spent 16 months incarcerated in a federal detention facility near Los Angeles. This book is her account of what they endured during that time. But it is also about Ms. Guzmán Molina’s faith and the leadership qualities that came to the fore with the realization that she could help other desperate women who, like her, were separated from their children and spouses and lived in imminent danger of deportation.

Soon after being taken into custody, she joined an interfaith Bible study group, made up of Hispanic and Chinese detainees. In describing her involvement in the group, she notes that her own favorite biblical passages were from Isaiah 43: “Fear not.…When you pass through the waters I will be with you.…When you walk through the fire...the flame shall not consume you.” Her belief in these words helped her to become a source of support to others on the verge of despair. Toward the end of her long period of detention, she says, “I had found meaning in my time in jail by helping the most vulnerable.” She was encouraged by a sympathetic Jesuit chaplain who had told her, “Amalia, there is great need here.” So significant did her assistance become, in fact—through interpreting for the non-English speaking, for example, advocating for them with the staff and generally instilling hope—that some began to refer to her as the Mother Teresa of the facility. Fights, overcrowding and the relentless noise from a television set that was never turned off exacerbated the darkness of a scene she helped to lighten.

Her own worries were tormenting. In a different “pod” from her husband (detention terminology is bizarre) and cut off from regular communication with him, she feared all the more for her children. Unable to keep up the mortgage payments, they lost the house. The oldest daughter moved in with a boyfriend. Fortunately, arrangements were made for the two younger children to stay with a neighbor.

Poor medical care was another worry, both for herself and for others whom she saw in pain. But the standard response from the medical staff was “just Tylenol and more Tylenol...they’re so indifferent to pain and suffering.” For her husband, the lack of preventive care proved deadly: less than a year after the couple’s release, he died of lung cancer. X-rays had been taken during his detention, but he had never been told of the danger he faced, nor did he receive treatment that might have forestalled the progress of the disease.

The Molinas came to the United States legally, and had filed for legal permanent residence through a citizen relative. It was an unfounded charge by a moneylender in El Salvador that resulted in their arrest and detention. Eventually, papers from home proved the accusation false, but even then, deportation loomed. Amalia saw it happen to others. She gives the example of a Filipino woman with two small children. A single mother, the woman was given a lifetime deportation order, and her citizen children were put up for adoption here. Family breakup is one of the most damaging effects of the current laws, and the U.S. bishops and other religious leaders have consistently spoken out against this aspect of them.

The Molinas were arrested before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, immigration laws have become increasingly restrictive. Ms. Molina’s book is a powerful indictment of the system that spawned them, as well as an implicit plea for their reform.

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