Helping Asylum Seekers. An Interview With Brent Mitchell

Brent Mitchell, a teacher at Carthage College and musician (and Texas transplant) advocated for the Hincapie Rendón family [see previous post]. He also works with Voces de la Frontera and the Racine Interfaith Coalition (RIC) with individuals who are detained and seeking asylum.

Brent’s wife, Prof. Stephanie Mitchell, is a history professor at Carthage College. She taught at the University of Monterey-Mexican and speaks fluent Spanish. Recently “people who speak Spanish better that they speak English or maybe don’t speak English, turned to my wife,” concerning a Central American asylum seeker who was detained at the Kenosha County Detention Center (KCDC). The migrant first contacted the RIC who then turned to Prof. Mitchell who met the man to see if she could help. That man referred other detained asylum seekers to Prof. Mitchell. She met them and agreed to help. Not surprisingly, those people knew people who needed help and those people knew people. Brent noted that “a door that we opened has been a floodgate.” They have felt “really overwhelmed.” Voces de la Frontera has “stepped up” and the Mitchells are “working pretty closely with them.”

What Brent and Stephanie are trying to do is get people out of detention. “We have just been trying to liberate people,” Brent said. “We don’t just get anybody out. We go and meet people. We interview them. We try to gauge what kind of person this is.” They haven’t come across anybody in detention that they needed to say no to.

These are not just immigrants. “Almost all of these are people are seeking asylum. Almost none of these people are coming here just to get a better life. These are not guys who have nothing better to do than to walk 3,000 miles and come and try and get one of our jobs. They are running for their lives,” Brent said. They are running from the violence in Central America and have been detained by ICE at the border, usually Texas, and brought to the KCDC (The Federal government has spread them out across the US. According to there are 55 immigrant prisons and jails in 23 states. According to Federal data, the states with the most immigration detentions are: Texas (15,800/day), California (6,500/day), Arizona (3,900/day) and Georgia (3,700/day).


[Migrants at the Nogales, TX detention center.]

Brent said that he and Stephanie “are only getting people out who seem to have a chance to win an asylum claim.” They get them out on bond and help connect them with lawyers to work on an asylum claim. This is not cheap. “A lot of money came out of our pockets to pay people’s bonds, to help make phones calls, get people in touch with their families,” Brent said.

As for helping with asylum claims, it is not easy to come up with supporting evidence. “How you going to get paperwork? You can’t go to the police,” Brent noted. “The police are going to kill you. Some cases have medical records showing that you have been sliced in half or show gunshot or knife wounds. It is very difficult, nevertheless some time we are able to make this happen.”

Why are they doing this? “We’re not doing it because we like it, because it is a nice hobby,” Brent said.”We’re not doing it because we are into it. We would rather not do this at all. We would rather not be bothered. But, when these people, who have no one to turn to, already running from horrible [circumstances], turn to you. We are not going to sleep. Other people may sleep. People keep saying why don’t you just quit? I see it as a moral issue. As a Christian the allusions to caring for immigrants are quit numerous and from a historical standpoint white nationalist movements are predicated on the hatred of immigrants. World leaders throughout history have used the opposition of an enemy, finding an enemy and then creating opposition to the enemy as a way of creating a cohesive force.”

A woman stopped Brent on the Carthage campus and said there a were number of death camp survivors in her synagogue in Chicago who wanted to let him and Prof. Mitchell “know they support what we are doing.” They lived through the Holocaust and “they see similarities to what is going on today. And these are very conservative people. They are not liberals,” Brent noted.

Brent and the organizations working with the asylum applicants need not only funding but people to help with very specific things. We’re trying to put people up until they get on their feet. Brent and the organizations do not financially support the asylum seekers – they find work for them once they have a work permit. “We find ways for these guys to work.” Brent calls them kids. Most of them “are really young.” And they are all male. Brent and Stephanie are starting to investigate some women detainees.

Brent estimates that he and Stephanie have helped somewhere between 12 and 20 people. “Each one of these cases is very complicated. Very time intensive; lots of very expensive phone calls and visits to the detention center and calls to lawyers and talking to people. Each one of these has been very difficult. Some have been sent back. When these people come here they don’t know anyone. There is no one they can call. When they are detained they are basically warehoused, on the shelf, indefinitely. They could could sit there for years. There is a woman who has been in detention fort two years now; she doesn’t know anybody.”

Kenosha County Detention Center - Photo 1

[The Kenosha County Detention Center on Hwy. H]

In Brent’s view, the conditions even in Kenosha, in the Detention Center on Hwy. H are often not very good. They “use solitary detention very liberally.” One of the asylum seekers, before he was detained here, was detained in Beaumont Texas. For crying he was stripped, put in a straight jacket and put in solitary confinement with the lights and air condition on for two weeks. This is torture.” So, people sent here come “with problems because they are traumatized. They have PTSD.”

The reality of Central America as told to Brent and Stephanie by these migrants is that “whatever job you have, whatever it is you do, there is a gang that will shake you down for protection, from them. The police will also shake you down and they work with each other. If you run to the gang from the police, they will turn you over to the police. If you run to the police from the gang, they will turn you over to the gang. In either case they they will cut you to ribbons or cut your family to ribbons or both.”

Most of asylum seekers that Brent encounters are young men and these are young men “who don’t want to be recruited into violence. They don’t want to be recruited into hell. They want to be decent people. That is why they are here because if they stay there they will be forced to do the bidding of these gangs, which means to be a killer.”


A Central American migrant who is staying with Brent and Stephanie now, owned a little taco shop and couldn’t pay the extortion money because the gang kept increasing the amount. The gang knifed and killed his younger brother and then cut him and left him for dead. He did die, but was resuscitated at the hospital. “As soon as he got out of the hospital he started walking north,” Brent said. He has a provisional driving license. The car he was using was stolen. But, he knew who had stolen it. So, he and Brent met the police at the house of the thief to get the car back. In Brent’s view the policeman was looking at him like “Oh you scumbag. Your another one of these low-life Hispanic guys. I know your type.” After they recovered the car the asylum seeker looked at the police officer and said [it was translated] “I love you guys. I’m serous I love you. In my country the this isn’t what the police do. Here I call you and you will actually come and help me.” Brent saw that the police officer was visibly changed. He went from a negative attitude to “I wish you well. I was stunned,” Brent said. “The man was serious, he wasn’t trying to play up to this cop.”

The asylum seeker has talked to classes of Prof. Mitchell’s and to some churches where they are trying to raise money. After the first time the man talked, Brent and Stephanie realized that they had to have him not talk about certain things. He is so traumatized that if he talks about it, it is not healthy for him. “We just don’t want to put him through it any more.” So they “skip a whole bunch of stuff and will still tell stories that will raise the hair on your neck,” Brent observed.

Brent considers himself a skeptical religious person. But when he reads the New Testament, he sees the mandate being to “carry your cross.” Being a christian to him does not simply mean “come to church and enjoy yourself and eat some cookies.” “And what’s the implication of carrying a cross?,” he asked, “You may get nailed to it. And carry other people’s crosses. I take it seriously. I don’t need a social club.”

“There is a purpose there [in Christianity] that is essential toward being a decent human being,” Brent noted. “And that’s what attracts me and this is part of that. We are confronted with this. Do I take this shit seriously or not? If I do then I have no choice.” He gets angry with churches that won’t help or “even let us talk to their congregations.” Sometimes they will offer to write a statement in support. “I don’t need your statement. Get out here and march with us. Where are you? My kids wonder where you are? If your not going to help us get out there and raise some money. Help us take care of this person or that person.”

Bishop Desmond Tutu said “Religion is a kitchen knife. You have to cut your tomatoes and you have to have a good sharp one, but I’ll cut your throat as well if I want to.” Brent sees that as “a way of saying that just as human beings are the most reprehensible worthless nauseating creatures on the earth we are also the most sublime, beautiful, wonderful creatures on the face of the earth. Religion is where that seems to be expressed the most. It is where we find the worst and the best of us.”

“We are at the point where we know people who have been here for many years now, who have been picked up by ICE or wake up in the morning and see ICE in the neighborhood and don’t go outside until they leave,” Brent aid. “We feel we are at that point where we are talking about getting a false wall somewhere.”

“People say why don’t they just obey the law? They broke the law. If you are coming as an asylum seeker you didn’t break the law. It is international law.” What is happening in Brent’s opinion is a dehumanization of the asylum seekers. “This whole anti-immigrant thing is an objectification. That is the most dangerous. That is what scares me the most. If you can objectify somebody you can do anything to them.”

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