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Artists and Writers Share Experiences of Immigration Detention

Musicians, poets and writers gathered on the Lower East Side for performances and discussions about immigration detention.

When the officers knocked on Khalil Cumberbatch’s front door one morning, he knew they had come for him.

After six and a half years in prison, he was now a professional on a career track with a family and a job with benefits. 

Cumberbatch was arrested after four years free from incarceration. The officers put him in one of four cars that were waiting outside his building.

“They brought me out the home in handcuffs,” he said, adding it was like they caught Pablo Escobar. 

He quickly learned they weren’t from state or local police, but rather agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They brought him from his Queens home to a detention center in Kearny, New Jersey. After years of rehabilitating himself with the help of prison mentors, he was thrust back into the criminal justice system, this time on track to get deported.

He narrowly escaped being deported to Georgetown, Guyana, after he was saved by a pardon from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cumberbatch’s story was one of several monologues and performances that touched on the issue of immigration detention and criminal justice during the third iteration of The Art of Return, a performance series organized and directed by Allen Arthur, a journalist and the audience editor of Documented.

Arthur started the series in August 2018 after a conversation with a formerly incarcerated woman who wanted to develop a talk about her experiences with incarceration. She needed a space to perform, but couldn’t find anywhere that fit well. Arthur had been meeting and speaking with the local population of former prisoners as part of a graduate school program. Many people he heard from were artists inside, he explained, “When they got out the didn’t know where to take their work and were nervous about being judged for it.” Arthur decided to create a space for it.

The Art of Return happens bi-monthly at Caveat, a venue on the Lower East Side. Formerly incarcerated people are invited to present visual artworks and perform through music, poetry and talks. A colleague recommended Arthur plan this show around the theme of immigration detention and its intersection with criminal justice.

Members of The Institute for Transformative Mentoring perform. Photo: Max Siegelbaum for Documented

On Sunday, representatives from Bedford-Stuyvesant based organization H.O.L.L.A!, which works with formerly incarcerated people and The Institute for Transformative Mentoring performed rap songs and recited poetry, alongside an interview between Arthur and Cumberbatch and a talk from writer Edafe Okporo.

In New York, criminal justice issues can often take on immigration elements and vice versa. Jails and detention centers are often indistinguishable and sometimes are contained in the same building. Several speakers described how criminal convictions can turn into immigration problems. Cumberbatch described how he had been taken to the United States as a child and only encountered the immigration detention system as an adult.

Edafe Okporo had first-hand experience with detention after fleeing his native country of Nigeria. He currently runs RDJ Refugee Shelter, a shelter for homeless asylum seekers and refugees in Harlem. Earlier in his life, he was an activist in Nigeria who advocated for better health care and treatment for HIV positive people in that country.

As the government passed increasingly restrictive laws that targeted the country’s gay community, Okporo grew more visible for his work. He was attacked one day on the street. “The community came after me,” he said. “When I woke up, I was in the clinic where I worked before.” After a failed attempt to seek asylum in the United Arab Emirates, he made his way to the U.S.

Shortly after he stepped off the plane, he was shackled, given a blue jumpsuit and brought to a detention center. He called the book he wrote about the experience Bed 26, after his bunk number, which was also the name the guards called him by.

Okporo avoided deportation and was able to continue his work advocating for disenfranchised people. His experience with immigration detention taught him one valuable lesson about the U.S., he explained.

“Even the free land is not so free.”

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