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What a sandwich and a gay detainee taught me at the Otay Mesa Detention Center

A sandwich between us at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.
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 I was sitting in the mid-size meeting room with 3-foot square tables and plastic yellow and red chairs, talking with Oussama, a 28-year-old gay immigration detainee, when a tall-ish, blonde woman in a nice dress and high heels sashayed over to us.

She must have seen that there was no food on our table because she set a bottle of green Gatorade and a plastic-wrapped sandwich between us. Then she smiled and returned to her own detainee.

I wasn’t surprised at the neighborly gesture. I had seen it before on other visits to Otay Mesa Detention Center, near San Diego’s southern border.

If the men weren’t dressed in matching orange jumpsuits and the guards weren’t hovering along the walls, you probably wouldn’t guess where we all were, and why. 

You might have focused on all the little kids squirming in their seats, and the wives, and grandmas and grandpas sharing microwave-heated, vending machine sandwiches and sipping sodas with men who looked like they ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s. 

Otay Mesa isn’t one of the concentration camps you will find in Texas. But it isn’t a summer camp, and the lessons learned there by prisoners and visitors alike are hard ones not taught at a boarding school.

Otay Mesa is a prison where asylum seekers are desperate to find a pro-bono lawyer and a sponsor. And although I’ve had no luck finding either for those I visit, the trans women and gay men are grateful for an hour once a week with people from the outside. I now have 25 trans women on my list and 5 gay men. My list continues to grow, and I wish I could visit more than one person a week.

They often tell me, “yo soy sola.” I am alone. Most have no family on this side of the border, and their families at home have abandoned them. I always tell them that the money I put in their commissary accounts comes from people who do care about them, not just me and Meredith. That always brings a shy smile and tears.

My detainee that afternoon was a gay man from Tunisia. Being gay is not something he talks about in prison. He knows it’s not safe. So he hides in plain sight, like most gay men on the outside in the U.S. used to do. Back in Tunisia, he was thrown in prison for being a gay man, and tortured and attacked daily.

Today, Oussama is one of the lucky ones. He has a lawyer, a gay man he met on social media before he was detained, who’s fighting for him. And he’s getting a visit from me, a married lesbian who he talks to about stuff like, “how do you know you’re in love.”

And sitting between us is that sandwich and soda, gifted to him by someone neither of us knows in a moment of compassion.

I tell him he should enjoy at least some of it. He says the same to me. It’s a little ironic. He was raised Muslim and the sandwich is a mix of salami, baloney, and ham. He doesn’t eat ham. I only eat meat when I have no other choice. The food will go to waste if it’s not eaten at the table. Neither of us is allowed to take it out of the room. 

I was willing to leave it there uneaten. But he was upset that we might waste food that someone shared with us. It would have been worse than rude. The lesson he shared with me, and the one I internalized in more ways than one: Never waste a kindness. So, I chased down that sandwich with the drink. It tasted better than I expected.