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34,000 Pillows

To demonstrate its priority to enforce immigration law, the US Congress mandated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintain a quota of 34,000 detained immigrants per day in its 250 facilities around the country. This mandate also known as “the bed quota” inspired the collaborative Díaz Lewis’ installation. In the installation, pillows are created daily from clothing donated by undocumented immigrants, prior detainees, and their allies. 

Each pillow is available for purchase, priced at $159 each to reflect the amount of taxpayer money spent each day by Congress to detain one person. 100% of the proceeds for this project support the efforts of national and local immigration organizations whose efforts are dedicated to revealing the injustices of the detention centers and to restoring human dignity to those formerly detained.

34,000 Pillows

In 2009, to demonstrate its priority to enforce immigration law, the US Congress mandated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintain a quota of 34,000 detained immigrants per day in its 250 facilities around the country.  The mandate also known as “the bed quota” inspired Díaz Lewis’ participatory installation where pillows are created daily from clothing donated by undocumented immigrants, prior detainees, and their allies. 

Each pillow is available for purchase, priced at $159 each to reflect the average amount of taxpayer money spent each day by Congress to detain one person. 100% of the proceeds for this project support the efforts of national and local immigration organizations whose efforts are dedicated to revealing the injustices of the detention centers and to restoring human dignity to those formerly detained.

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The United States operates the largest immigrant detention infrastructure in the world detaining over 450,000 individuals annually. The expansion of the system was due to the arbitrary bed quota also known as the “detention bed mandate” introduced in 2009 by Senator Byrd, who implemented the following language into the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010: “...funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 33,400 detention beds.”  

According to the Detention Watch Network, the bed quota was removed from the language that outlines the budget for Immigration and Customs Enforcement yet the number of people currently held in immigration detention has far exceeded the 34,000 quota. An underlying network of local quotas remain written into detention contracts requiring ICE to pay for a minimum number of beds at key detention centers, most of which are run by private prison corporations. 

Over 70% of the 45,000 beds currently contracted by ICE are in private prisons, such as CoreCivic (formerly CCA) and the GEO Group who both lobby for immigration reform that bolsters their bottom lines. This ultimatum to maximize profit perverts the social mission of incarceration. The quota has prevented ICE from exercising discretion and developing alternatives to detention that would allow those who pose no public risk to be able to stay with their families while awaiting immigration court hearings. The decision regarding whether or not someone should be released on bond is budgetary, not judicial. As a result, thousands of asylum seekers, women and children, and refugees are being detained and moved from one detention center to the next without bond. The mandate is targeting innocent lives while pushing the wrong idea that moving from one country to another is a criminal act that should be punished with incarceration.

The project 34,000 Pillows is an ongoing and participatory project that illuminates and challenges the monetary gain of this system and defends the individuals whose lives are being traded for private prison dollars. In an attempt to represent the “silenced body” of the immigrant and the budgetary language of the quota, Díaz Lewis are creating pillows from clothing donated by undocumented immigrants and their allies.

An important facet of the project is the open workshop that accompanies each installation. Participants are invited to design a pillow which is later sewn together by Díaz Lewis. This kinesthetic experience heightens one’s connection to the issue, implicates the viewers in one’s role, and serves to emancipate the spectator as one physically becomes part of an imagined solution.


The concept of the open workshop began at the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants (ICDI) House of Hospitality in Chicago, where Díaz Lewis collaborated with immigrants from 18 different countries to design pillows, as they shared their stories. Subsequent workshop spaces took place in Weinberg Newton Gallery and Chicago Cultural Center (both in Chicago), in San Francisco as part of the exhibition Home Land Security organized by For Site Foundation, at University of Illinois, Springfield, and at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania. These spaces have hosted hundreds of students and participants and over 800 pillows have been created.

At each public installation, anyone can acquire a pillow in exchange for a donation of $159 - the government’s daily cost per bed for detaining an immigrant -  or more to one of the partnering institutions who have until now included Human Rights Watch, Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants, KC for Refugees, Aranda Family Emergency Relief Fund, and Camino Nuevo Charter School.