In downtown Austin, among dozens of SXSW showcases and pop-ups, sits a freezing-cold storage pod. It’s not meant as a refuge from Texas heat. Instead, it’s a snapshot of the U.S. immigration system and the chilly, crowded holding cells at Customs and Border Protection facilities.
On display March 8 to 9, and returning March 15 to 16, the “Abolish ICEbox” is an attempt by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) to shed light on the conditions that asylum seekers face in detention centers. Artists Yocelyn Riojas and Gerardo Silguero worked on the exhibit alongside Ana Maria Rea, an education and community outreach specialist for RAICES.
“We didn’t want to create an immersive art exhibit. It’s not meant to be something fun or cool to do at South by Southwest,” Silguero said. “This is about the children and what they go through when they arrive at the border.”
Because access inside CPB facilities is so restricted, Rea said they relied on testimony from RAICES clients who described the holding rooms as hieleras, or freezers. Inside the storage pod, visitors can hear from a child asylum seeker, whose identity is protected for her safety.
When the door shuts, a recording of an interview with the girl begins. She describes being separated from her brother and placed in a cramped cell with her aunt and cousin. They had no place to stand while others slept on the floors. “I couldn’t sleep because the room was so cold,” she says. “I felt sick to my stomach. I felt bored, depressed. I didn’t feel good.” Hungry and cold, she fell so ill that her aunt and cousin had to pound on the doors seeking help.
Inside the storage pod, Riojas and Silguero built mannequins of children out of transparent packing tape and surrounded them with strings of lights and flowers. One of the figures sits on a bench, while others are lying on the floor or standing.
“Working at RAICES, and hearing this story over and over again, we realized so many people had no idea what these children go through,” Rea said. “None of us will ever really know what it’s like to be detained, but we wanted to find a way to help people understand a bit more.”
Outside of the exhibit, visitors are invited to write some reflection about what they’ve just seen on a yellow bandana and tie it to a nearby chain-link fence. Among the dozens of bandanas, one message reads, “I had to wait my turn, so should everyone else,” while another says, “Every child deserves a childhood.”
For Silguero, the subject matter hits close to home. In Brownsville, where he grew up, the Walmart that his family would shop at on the way to South Padre Island has now become a detention center.
“To have that become a place where these immigrants are detained is haunting,” he said. “People need to remember these changes don’t happen overnight. We need to be starting conversations because it’s easy to just scroll away and go about your life without thinking of these kids.”