Book Review | Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention


Immigration detention is Canada’s fastest growing form of incarceration. Pending deportation, the Canadian governments puts migrants in immigration hold, separating them from their families, making adequate legal counsel inaccessible, and subjecting them to constant lockdowns. They’re deemed flight risks and detained for overstaying their visas or permits, or for having their permanent or refugee status revoked. Like failing to pay a parking permit or filing taxes on time, these migrants are only accused of an “administrative offense.” But unlike those other offenses, these are some of the only ones which lead to detention.

“Canada has three designated immigration “holding” centres located in Toronto, Laval, and Vancouver,” writes Tings Chak in Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, a forthcoming graphic novel,  “but more than one third of detainees are held in rented beds in provincial prisons.” One of these holding centres is the CBSA Vancouver Immigration Holding Centre, in the basement of the Vancouver International airport, where Lucia Jimenez committed suicide in December.

Chak’s illustrations reveal the underbelly of facilities intentionally hidden away. “Spaces of incarceration are both nowhere and everywhere, blended into our landscapes,” she writes. “But their invisibility is no coincidence. We hide the things that we don’t want to see or that we don’t want seen.”

The internal structure of these buildings is constructed in ways that control the experiences and responses of their inhabitants. The architecture of demoralization means “you lose your spatial bearings and markings, you lose your identity…and subjecthood.”  Based on discussions with detainees, Chak reveals that some in prolonged segregation experience a feeling of merging with the walls, feeling the presence of someone else in the cell who they can never quite see, and, after enduring containment within white walls and over-exposure to fluorescent lighting, “white blindness,” or the inability to see colour or to see at all.

And yet, despite the experience of indefinite detention and all its manifestations, migrants still defiantly resist. There are “taped up photos, hoarded food, and toilet paper curtains even if they are torn down or are flushed down the toilet during random monthly searches.” There are the “jail cakes” detainees secretly make to celebrate each others’ birthdays and their release from detention. In these small acts, we can see the enduring spirit of resistance regardless of attempts to crush it.

Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention documents some of these moments through imagery and text, and sheds light on an institution so successfully hidden away.