As Americans celebrate Independence Day, a group of artists and activists are flying pro-immigrant, anti-incarceration messages in the skies. They hired fleets of airplanes to sky-write their slogans over 80 locations, including immigration detention facilities, jails, courts and the U.S./Mexico border.
The performance artist who goes by the name Cassils flew was in one of the planes in a fleet that flew over the West Coast headquarters of Geo Group, which is one of the biggest operators of adult detention centers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cassils left a message to ICE in the sky: “Shame. #Defund Hate.”
Cassils, a Canadian immigrant who recently became an American citizen, was appalled to learn there are so many detention centers around the United States in plain sight — three words that became the name of the art project they helped create.
“We hear about these detention centers as being located amongst the southern border,” says Cassils. People don’t really understand, Cassils says, that detention centers are in practically every state in the country, “like near an IKEA in Brooklyn.”
For “In Plain Sight,” Cassils teamed up with another performance artist, Rafa Esparza. They invited artists and activists to fly their own slogans in the sky. Esparza says they sent messages of care and support and solidarity, “messages that are coming from frustration, messages that are making demands.”
“Care, not cages” is the phrase artist Patrisse Cullors sent over the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. The co-founder of Black Lives Matter chose to echo the rallying cry of L.A. activists fighting mass criminalization of immigrants and U.S. citizens.
“L.A. County is the largest jailer in the world,” she says. “Half of the people that are in the jails are there because they can’t afford bail. If someone goes inside who’s undocumented, instead of being released, they’re actually given over to ICE. So what we are challenging the county to do right now is to actually invest into our communities through an alternatives to incarceration fund.”
Each of the sky-typed phrases were followed by a hashtag leading to a website by immigrant justice organizations involved in the project. Among the participants were an ACLU lawyer, Central American immigrant organizations and Native American and Japanese American activists.
“My family was also in a camp, a detention center for three years during World War Two, because the U.S. thought they were the enemy. They were not and you are not the enemy” is one of the messages on a recording people can hear when they call the number artist Devon Tsuno sky-typed over border crossing checkpoints in Texas.
The recording includes letters written by immigrants in detention centers.
“I’m coming from Honduras, asking for asylum because they killed my son in front of me,” reads one letter. In another, a child wrote, “Dear dad, I love you very much. I wish this was never happening.”
In the sky above the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the artist Dread Scott is transmitting the name of the first known ICE detainee who died from COVID-19: Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia. And above the San Luis Regional Detention center in Arizona, artist Edgar Arceneaux sent out lyrics from a Marc Anthony song: “Vivir mi vida, la la la la,” which translates to “Live my life, la la la la.”
“I just think it’s so poetic and beautiful to do a project like this,” says singer Julieta Venegas, who also contributed to the project. Having grown up near the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, she sent a message to immigrants crossing the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry: “No Te Rindas.” (Don’t Give Up.)
“To migrate is not a frivolous decision,” she says. “It’s a life decision, where you take a leap of faith. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So many stories tell you you’re not gonna make it. So maybe looking up at the sky and someone saying the opposite, maybe it’ll help someone.”
Venegas says the project reminded her of the time in the 1980’s when Chilean poet Raúl Zurita hired small airplanes to sky-write passages of his poem “La Vida Nueva” over New York City. Zurita also had bulldozers etch his phrase “Ni pena ni miedo ” (Neither Shame Nor Fear) in Chile’s Atacama Desert, to protest the military dictatorship.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas says the In Plain Sight project was a call to action on Independence Day. His message over an ICE detention center in Hackensack, N.J. will read “Life, Liberty, And …”
“Part of what brought many people back to this country over the past several centuries was this pursuit of happiness. So there’s a true irony there,” says Thomas. “The fact that there are hundreds of these institutions across the country where children and parents are being separated, where people are living in inhumane conditions, especially under COVID-19, it’s really, I would say, an embarrassment to our country.”
Thomas says at a time when people are reevaluating societal and personal values, the voices of artists on controversial issues like immigration detention are crucial. He points to a quote attributed to the late singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson: “Artists are the radical voice of civilization.”