By Carrie Dawson
In December 2013, Lucia Vega Jimenez, an undocumented Mexican national who worked as a chambermaid in Vancouver, was caught paying less than the full fare for a train ticket. The transit police turned her over to Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), the government body responsible for border security, who took her into custody. The day before she was scheduled to be deported, Jimenez hanged herself from a shower rod in the immigration detention center. She died one week later. In a newspaper interview, Yasmin Trejo, a friend of Jimenez’s, said, “Lucia ended up being a ghost here.” Like so many non-status migrants for whom banal daily rituals—like accessing public transit—are dangerous, Jimenez practiced a necessary invisibility. But it was not until her undocumented status came to light that she really disappeared: to borrow Sophie Nield’s terms, Jimenez entered the state’s “apparatus of disappearance, and vanished in plain sight” (“The Proteus Cabinet” 144). Given the multiple technologies of surveillance at work in detention facilities, it seems counterintuitive to constitute them as places where one can vanish—where one can be “present before the law, but invisible to it” (Nield 144) —but such is the case in Canada, where there is no upper limit on the length of immigration detention, and where some migrant detainees are incarcerated for years, despite not being convicted of a crime.
So, what practices and policies account for the invisibility of migrant detention in Canada? In grappling with this question, multimedia artist and migrant rights activist Tings Chak foregrounds the carefully contrived banality of migrant detention: because these mostly semi-suburban and physically unexceptional detention facilities typically “bare little trace,” and because access is limited, there is, she insists, a pressing need to “make visible the sites and stories of detention, to bring them into [public] conversations” (26). With reference to Chak’s graphic essay Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, I mean to take up the call to instigate a public conversation about immigration detention – to make the invisible visible.
In the last twenty-five years, Canada, like many other first-world countries, has introduced legislation that makes it almost impossible for asylum seekers to arrive at our borders without breaking laws. By making legal migration very difficult, these measures encourage Canadians to see undocumented migrants as criminal, a problem that has been exacerbated by the 2012 introduction of mandatory detention for “irregular arrivals” and by the fact that approximately one-third of immigration detainees are held in prisons and are not typically separated from those serving time for criminal offences (Gros and van Groll, “We Have No Rights” 4). Simply put, the tendency to constitute these people as law-breakers is encouraged by their incarceration, and so the problem of jailing them for administrative—and not, in the vast majority of cases, criminal–reasons largely disappears.
This may be about to change. In the spring of 2016 three men died in quick succession while in the custody of CBSA, prompting the Public Safety Minister to acknowledge that the federal government “can and must do better” when taking care of migrant detainees (qtd. in Draaisma, “Federal Government Reviewing Immigration Detention Process”). It is too early to tell if Goodale’s pledge to explore “appropriate review mechanisms” will lead to independent oversight of CBSA (qtd. in Draaisma), but the government’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing indicates that the time is right to “make visible the sites and stories of detention” and to account for the invisibilised suffering of so many detainees (Chak 26). Here, Chak’s Undocumented is helpful.
The book is organized into three sections—“Intake,” “The Living Zone,” and “Outtake” —that position the reader as an inmate who is transported to a detention centre, incarcerated, and readied for removal. “Intake” begins thus: “This building is a maze and you are forced to march through it. Following an intake sequence for arrivals, you face a complex set of stations for observation, verification, and neutralization.” (33). The process by which “you” are “neutralized” involves being led through many small, impersonal spaces. Security cameras record your every move, but you see no other people until the last pages of the book, where Chak includes close ups of the hands that fasten cuffs and administer pat-down. As Chak writes, “there are a lot of hands involved in this industry, but there aren’t many faces” (91). Foregrounding anonymized and routinized institutional violence, she emphasizes that there is nothing personal about immigration detention.
The book’s visual form emphasizes the fragmentary nature of space in prison through its inclusion of multiple small images on a single page and through the use of heavy black lines that contain each image. But Chak also demonstrates that the division of carceral space into a series of tightly bound fragments is profoundly disorienting: “Inside,” she argues, “they never let you see the horizon,” so “you lose your spatial bearings” (90), and “you”—the undocumented migrant or failed refugee claimant—forego your already precarious ability to know yourself in relation to a place.
I started this post by echoing Yasmin Trejo’s suggestion that Lucia Vega Jimenez “ended up being a ghost” in Canada. Like Trejo, Chak uses the figure of the ghost to represent the undocumented migrant who endeavours to remain unseen by police or by CBSA. In Undocumented, the precarious relationship of undocumented people to public space is forcefully rendered by a drawing of blank-faced figures who minimize traces of their presence in Canada by hovering above the landscape. Thus she bolsters her argument that “the disappearance of one’s self” is one of the foremost struggles for incarcerated people (112).
Avery Gordon also suggests that we might usefully construe the migrant detainee as a ghost who has suffered a “social death.” Gordon refers to social death as the process by which a prisoner is “civilly disabled or dead in law and in the broader social domain” (“Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity” 10). Indefinite detention can be understood as social death because it robs prisoners of the ability to plan their futures and thus compromises their ability to cope with the day-to-day challenges of detainment. The ability of prison detainees—as opposed to those held in immigration detention centres—to appear before the law is particularly limited because they typically have reduced access to lawyers, limited opportunities for visitation, and greater difficulty gathering case-relevant materials. Tragically, this was true of Lucia Vega Jimenez, who was invisible and effectively dead before the law in her final weeks.
Before being transferred to a CBSA holding facility, Jimenez was held in the maximum security wing of a local prison, where she tried for two weeks to get a lawyer to help her file documents that would have given her more time to fight her deportation. Though she secured a lawyer, the document was never filed, and, despite repeated requests and very high levels of anxiety, she was not able to see the prison’s mental health coordinator because of a paperwork error (Gros and van Groll 15). In an attempt to exercise her rights and to address pressing mental-health needs, Jimenez used all the channels available to her, but her requests fell on deaf ears; displaced, disoriented, and isolated from the institutions that ground and protect rights-bearing subjects, she endured a social death before suffering a violent a physical death.
Chak reinforces the invisibility of detainees by including drawings of security cameras on nearly every page. The book also features drawings that simulate security footage: one page containing eight of these images simulates the effect of looking at a bank of security screens (55). Alongside each “shot” Chak includes architectural renderings of a cells with a list of its dimensions and a note concerning “the minimum habitable space for an incarcerated individual” (103). But, the very minimal data and the absence of any people in these “shots” do more than emphasize the radically depersonalized nature of the space. In their very barrenness, they underscore all that the camera does not see; implicitly, they insist that “not every human action can be programmed or predicted” and, furthermore, that “our bodies always find ways to carve our space, to refocus our attention from the geometry to the lived experience, from the container to the contained” (Chak 103). Crucially, this section of the book also includes multiple examples of tools that detainees use to “make space” within their cells – from toilet paper curtains to the example of the prisoner who worked out the number of footsteps in a mile so that he could walk from Minnesota to Boston while inside his cell. In these ways, too, Chak underscores the fact that something always exceeds the frame, be that the literal cell or the ideology that apprehends the detainee as an inmate but fails to recognize her as a person.
Judith Butler suggests that “When those frames that govern the relative and differential recognizability of lives come apart,” it becomes possible for us to apprehend “what or who is living but has not been generally ‘recognized’ as a life” (Frames of War 12). In Avery Gordon’s words, this means “what has been in your blind spot comes into view” (2), that you and I see what has been hidden in plain sight. Such is the effect of reading Tings Chak’s graphic essay: the people hidden in plain sight demand our attention and they demand their due.
Dr. Carrie Dawson teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her recent work considers representations of refugees and undocumented migrants in Canadian literature and culture.
 When it rears its head in the press—as it did after Jimenez’s death—state representatives have attempted to make immigration detention practices palatable to Canadians by likening CBSA detention facilities to “hotels with good living conditions.” For more on this, see: Dawson, Carrie. 2014. “Refugee Hotels: The Discourse of Hospitality and the Rise of Immigration Detention in Canada.” University of Toronto Quarterly 83.4: 826-46.
 The facelessness of Chak’s ghostly figures is particularly apt given that many detainees use false identity documents and their time in detainment is often protracted by the difficulty of determining their real identities, as is the case with Michael Mvogo, who was held without charge in Canadian detention facilities for more than eight years while officials struggled to confirm his identity and gather the documents necessary to deport him to his country of origin. For more on this, see: Keung, Nicholas. 2014. “UN Chastises Canada over Immigration Detention, including Un-deportable Man Jailed 8 years.” Toronto Star, July 24.
 As Michael Mvogo’s experience in Canadian prisons indicates, the difficulties of appearing before the law are compounded for the many prisoners whose identities are in question. Equally important, it has been argued that “the detention review process, which is meant to mitigate the risk of indefinite detention, actually facilitates it” because reviews are often run by “lay decision-makers,” and hearings often last “a matter of minutes, lack due process and presume continued detention” (Gros and van Groll 5).