As communities across the country continue to discuss how they can work together to end the isolation of men and women in immigration detention, the idea of pen pals keeps surfacing.
While there are over 20 visitation programs across the country, there remains over 200 detention facilities without a visitation program. CIVIC’s Pen Pal Program is designed to connect volunteers in any part of the country with people in immigration detention who do not yet have visitors.
CIVIC’s Pen Pal Program promotes principled relationships between men and women in immigration detention and supporters outside the walls. CIVIC’s Pen Pal Program is open to non-U.S. citizens and undocumented individuals. To learn more about writing to immigrants in detention, check out the simple guide below created by the Restoration Project in Florence, Arizona. To become a Pen Pal, email CIVIC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writing to Immigrants in Detention
by The Restoration Project
Living inside of an immigration detention center isn’t easy. Some people have said they felt lonely, confused, bored, afraid. Being separated from family, friends, and all that is familiar is stressful. Being treated like a prisoner, while awaiting an unknown outcome, can take a tremendous psychological toll. Some—like the men being held in the Pinal County Jail—do not even have a chance go outside. Often the food is unfamiliar, bland, and limited. Phone calls cost several dollars a minute and therefore are out of reach financially for many.
Your letter can become solace, encouragement, and a very real connection to the outside world in the midst of this difficult time in someone’s life. When we write to men and women being detained we are making a human connection across the walls and barbed wire. We are honoring the dignity of every human being—something not always done inside the centers. Your letter also sends a message to the person receiving it and the others around him or her, that someone knows they are there. They are not alone. They have support. Some people have said that guards treat them better when they receive letters and visitors.
Because your letter will mean so much to many of the people you write to, here are a few things to understand before you make a commitment to write to those being detained.
• We write as friends. We are not writing as lawyers, doctors, or social workers. We are one human connecting with another human being in solidarity as we seek to honor the dignity of all. Do not attempt to give legal advice.
• Keep your promises. Don’t make commitments you can’t keep. If you say you will write to someone, you must. Your letter means so much more than most of us can possibly imagine. You may not be able or willing to do what someone asks of you—call family, send money, etc. That is okay. Know your own boundaries. And talk with a facilitator of the writing project when questions arise.
• Do not take away someone’s power. While they may be in a temporarily vulnerable position, many immigrant men and women in detention centers are some of the most courageous, intelligent, gifted, resourceful people you may have the privilege of meeting. Do not romanticize them as the “detainee” or victimize them to the point of taking power away from them. Many have been successful business people, survived horrendous situations due to their own resourcefulness, traveled the world to arrive here, learned to speak several languages, attended university, and been leaders in their families, towns and schools.
• Be aware of your own power. You have more “power” than detained immigrants, due to your freedom and status in this country. Be careful to not abuse the power difference. And never do for someone what he or she can do for themselves.
• Keep in mind your letters may be read by a guard. Be tactful and conscious. For example, if you talk about immigration or the detention system with anger or disgust, it may be the detainee that will be the one who will suffer from your words, not you. We are here to be compassionate friends. And to love everyone.
• Be sensitive to the fact that the person reading your letter may be inferring messages differently than you imply due to their current circumstances. Loneliness, power differences, and language differences could play into the person being detained misunderstanding you, or feeling more intimately connected to you than you intend.
• We have a strict no-proselytizing policy. It is not appropriate to try to convert anyone to your religion. It is important to give the detained immigrant the power to guide the conversation. If they bring up religion, then you may discuss the topic on their terms. Be careful to never make it seem like participating in a certain religion is necessary to receive letters from you. Keep in mind that it could be members of your religion that persecuted them in their home country. It is sometimes religious persecution that has caused someone to flee his or her home, so religion in general may be a complex and painful topic. Some people may have faced death due to their beliefs, making it even more inappropriate to try to convince them to adopt your religious beliefs. All that said, if the person finds strength from their faith, it is appropriate to encourage them in their own faith. This may mean Christians mail Muslim prayers or poems to someone they are writing to. Even if you are not a person of faith, if religion is important to the person you are in contact with, you may want to ask for instance how their faith is sustaining them. Just remember that you are a friend there to uplift detained individuals through their own beliefs, not as a proselytizer seeking to convert.
• We fully support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Some people have fled their country because of attempts on their life due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. We do not believe that being LGBT is a sin and will never attempt to change anyone. We go far beyond tolerance. We celebrate the gifts of LGBT people.
• Talk about your questions with a facilitator of the writing project as they come up. Not every situation can be covered here, so please do not hesitate to speak with a facilitator about your questions by phone or email.
• Keep a record of when you write and email this by the end of each month to your writing facilitator. You can simply say: I, (your name), wrote (number of letters) to (name of person you are writing) who is in (name of facility) in (month). It’s also important to let the facilitator know if the person you are writing was transferred to another facility, released, or deported. It is helpful if you want to add something about how it is going. Of course if there are any concerns or questions please contact a facilitator as they come up.
Thank you for taking the time to build a hopeful, encouraging, human connection through letter writing to those detained in immigration centers. You are part of building a human network of hope, solidarity, and tangible support. Honoring the dignity of every human being is the foundation for this lifeline of hope. Thank you for being part of this network.