By Monica Hernandez
My great grandmother always taught me to treat everyone with dignity, compassion, and kindness. As an immigrant herself, she experienced the backlash of mispronounced English. She was mocked when she would attempt to sound prolifically educated with a second grade education, and was dismissed as another immigrant. But it was her plight that put me on this journey. I always knew that I wanted to work with an underrepresented community, but I had no clue that path would lead me into a jail. I begin my story.
After months of waiting, I received a call from Detention Dialogues, a visitation program based in Northern California started by the co-founders of CIVIC. I was told that an immigrant who was being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a local county jail had requested a visit. I accepted the request and remained restless until my first visit.
I began that morning with nerves, never having stepped into a jail or had the opportunity to speak in person with an immigrant in detention. I had been helping Detention Dialogues with a hotline they had started at the West County Detention Facility, but visiting was not the same as speaking with people over the phone. Once I ended a call, their voice trailed off. And when I visited, their face was etched into my memory and the stench of the jail rested in my hair.
The drive that Sunday morning, over a year ago, is one I will never forget. That fateful Sunday, I entered the county jail and signed in. I was given a number, which corresponded to the room I would meet Sofia. I took my seat and waited. I began tracing my fingers over names that had been carved in the wall, left by previous visitors. Fidgeting in my seat because there never is a comfortable spot on a cold metal bottom. Alas, I was greeted with a friendly face, and I said hello. Minutes later, Sofia began telling me her story and how she ended up in immigration detention. Nothing in my life would have prepared me for those first few minutes. I assured her that what we discussed would remain between the two of us. Thus began a friendship, which would grow stronger with each visit every other Sunday.
The first couple of visits we were getting to know each other. I felt it only fair to open up as well. We did not know each other, and she was taking a chance on me. I quickly learned that each visit would not be the same. Some Sundays, we would reminisce about younger years and close our eyes and just talk. Other Sundays, we would barely exchange words and sit in silence, while mothers next to me kissed their sons through the window. And in between, I had the rare opportunity to hear her sing, a voice she had forgotten about. One look in her eyes and I knew what kind of day she had started before I arrived.
Visitation was not about checking in and checking out. We genuinely built a friendship. I was mindful that any situation would and could be thrown at me. I visited her after she was attacked by another inmate. I listened to her cry because her family declined all her incoming calls, friends disappeared, her privileges were revoked, she struggled with English classes, and how she contemplated suicide. I followed her through every jail transfer watching this woman lose weight, lose energy, but more importantly, lose hope. On her darkest day and my happiest moment, I checked into the jail at which I had first met Sofia. I listened for my name to be called and given my room number. I walked into the visitation area and took my seat. She walked into the room and looked at me. She had been crying. We both picked up the phone at the same time. I tried to tell her my great news, but my nerves got caught in my throat. So in between a cry and a breath, I said “You’re going home, your visa got approved.” She dropped to her knees and started crying. I knew then that my visiting gave her hope, and I knew that we had much more work to do together.
You see, visitation is not about checking in and checking out. We as visitors serve as friends, a listening ear, and someone who men and women in detention start to count on. We are their outside voice, their connection to the world, the one who will advocate for them and their release. But as fruitful as the work of a visitor is, it can also be stressful. In the beginning, I took my work home with me. My anxiety was high, and I was always worried about whether she would be deported before our next visit. I would check the jail inmate information online to make sure her name was posted. I was emotional knowing I could not protect her, and that I had no real answers as to her release date.
I had to free this stress so I turned back to an old friend, my pen and paper. I began writing again. For those who are interested in visiting, I ask several things of you. I ask you to be kind, patient, and loving. I dare you to brighten their day and offer a glimmer of hope. I challenge you to be your best self and extend compassion to immigrants in some of the most dehumanizing places in this country. These men and women have been placed in insufferable conditions They have been deemed “invisible” and a “burden on society.” I ask you to take time for yourself. But more importantly, I ask you to be honest with yourself. Can you do this type of work? Being a CIVIC visitor volunteer is not for everyone, but that should not deter you from doing other meaningful work. My realization of this honest truth prompted me to begin an ad-hoc post release program in our organization where I work closely with immigrants after they are released from detention. And although my feet may not return to the jails each week, I will continue to advocate on behalf of detained immigrants and never end the dialogue of detention.