Illustrating the hidden architecture of migrant detention

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Everywhere and nowhere: Exposing infrastructures of incarceration

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 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.


Daniel Tseghay is an editor for The Mainlander.

This book review originally appeared on The Mainlander and is reprinted with permission.

related items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.