The Trump administration was dealt a blow last month when the Supreme Court ruled to leave the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which can protect individuals brought to the U.S. as children, in place for now. But thousands of other people who came to this country in hopes of immigrating are being held in detention centers around the country and are subject to abuse and deplorable conditions.
This weekend, a collective of artists, led by Cassils and Rafa Esparza, are taking their work to the skies to call out that abuse and to make people aware of where it’s happening ― often right in their own backyards ― in hopes of inspiring them to do something about it.
“In Plain Sight” is a group of more than 80 activist artists whose aerial actions will take place Friday through Sunday. They have enlisted “every type-writing plane in the United States” to create messages made of water vapor, which will be visible in the sky over more than 80 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, immigration courts, borders, sites of former internment camps and other significant landmarks.
Each message was picked by a specific artist, many of whom are personally connected to or have experienced either immigration detention or systemic violence in some way, whether based on sexuality, race, gender or immigration status. In that regard, the messages are also meant to express solidarity with people housed in the detention centers, which are often overcrowded, unhealthy and unsanitary.
“This work is very much about artists who may come from divergent and different perspectives focusing on this issue of migrant detention and making visible the invisible violence taking place in our country right now ― not just at the border but in every single state,” Cassils told HuffPost by phone last week. “If you try to calculate how much money these camps are making, it would break your calculator.”
Working with national and local nonprofits and organizations, the activist artwork aims to both raise awareness and send out a call to action for its viewers. Each sky-written message will end with the hashtag #XMAP, which, when typed into a browser on a phone, brings up a website with more information and resources on how people can provide support.
“Using your phone signal, the hashtag will geolocate you and let you know exactly where the center is in your proximity,” Cassils said. “There are thousands of them, often interwoven in disturbing ways in our urban landscape, like next to an IKEA in Red Hook, Brooklyn. We want to make this visible but also educate ― once you know something you can’t un-know it, and now you have this ethical and moral quandary: Will I ignore this? Or will I do something about it?”
Make the Road, a nonprofit based in New Jersey, will fly the message “Free them all” over the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark. Director Sara Cullinane explained why it wanted to participate in the project.
“The day before Americans watch fireworks light up the sky in celebration of freedom and liberty, we will look to the skies across New Jersey to be reminded that liberty and justice are not available to everyone here,” she told HuffPost in an email. “In New Jersey, every year thousands of individuals are taken from their families and detained in four ICE detention centers, some housed in county jails that bring lucrative contracts to our counties. Detention is cruel and inhumane ― even before COVID, dozens of detainees died in ICE and [Customs and Border Protection] custody. Now is the moment for our government to release all detainees.”
Cassils and Esparza say it is their duty as artists to speak truth to power and envision what a better, more just world would look like.
“I am first-generation Mexican American,” Esparza told HuffPost. “My folks came to the States in the ’70s by whatever means they had to do so and make it here alive. There’s always this conversation and critique around whether or not you came here in the ‘right way,’ and I think experiencing my folks’ struggle to build a new life here while also seeing their practice of generosity, opening up their home to other immigrants, friends and family, while being resourceful to survive has informed so much of how I take on collaborations and make my art impactful.”
Cassils, who moved to the United States from Canada, also has a personal connection to immigration.
“The fact that it’s so financially motivated, the fact that I couldn’t afford a lawyer [to immigrate], I was trans, I was queer,” they said. “I’m not equating it with what most folks in this position go through, I was in a much more privileged position ― but it still took years and years to manage the system. I can’t even imagine how impossible the system that is so stacked against you is.”
It’s that notion that inspired Esparza and Cassils to launch this project over the Fourth of July weekend.
“I hope there is a broader sense of what it means for folks to really question what it means to be a patriot,” Esparza said. “Using our freedom of speech, engaging our rights as folks who live in the United States ― I hope it’s something that helps people bring into question their own engagements politically and civilly in this country.”
Cassils also pointed to the misleading message on the Statue of Liberty and how difficult trying to make a new life in the United States can be for many who travel here.
“It says come, you can make your living here, but it’s actually a mired system steeped in financial gain and exploitation that is so deeply problematic,” they said. “As a new citizen and learning about the extent that these camps exist, the thousands of people in cages, the children, the trans and queer people who came because if they stayed where they were they would die ― as an artist and a citizen, we need to do something about this. This is everyone’s issue.”
Tania Bernal, of the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, explained to HuffPost in an email that the high stakes made the organization want to be involved in the action.
“As undocumented youth who are abolitionists, CIYJA youth believe above all else that we have to get rid of the disease to end the symptoms of racist law enforcement and brutality,” Bernal said. “That disease is the carceral state, which includes prisons and detention facilities. Until they are abolished, we will continue to see the system dehumanize and target marginalized communities. That is why we have been so intentional about fighting for the most criminalized folks at Mesa Verde Detention Facility, to prove that even those most deemed disposable by the state are worthy of their humanity, of compassion, and of transformational growth.”
When asked about what message they hope this sends to the U.S. government, Esparza said it is more for the people to take action ― but he did not mince words when it came to what that action looks like.
“We can’t and won’t be silenced,” he said. “It’s been really important for us to be able to think about the urgency of this project as we move through 2020 and experience COVID and how it’s exacerbated the dire situation people in detention face. It’s important for us to continue speaking to power, to use our voices to elevate the voices of those who have been invisible, neglected and erased. I hope this is a project where people can see and feel that.”
To learn more, head to the In Plain Sight website.