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.
Four New Visitation Programs Since July: And More Coming Soon!
By Christina Fialho
Since July 2012, the visitation movement has expanded to Orange County, California; San Diego, California; Monmouth County, New Jersey; and Rappahannock County, Virginia. CIVIC has been contacted by 18 other groups hoping to learn more about immigration detention and bring a visitation program to their communities.
Sarah Jackson, one of these rising visitation program coordinators, already runs a hospitality home in Aurora, Colorado. The home, Casa de Paz, is near the state’s one detention facility operated by GEO Group and contracted with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Casa de Paz is modeled after one of CIVIC’s members, El Refugio, in Georgia. Casa de Paz opened its doors in June 2012 so friends and relatives of people in immigration detention can maintain contact with their loved ones as well as have a place to eat and sleep.
Sarah sees visitation as an extension of her work. “Opening our doors to our home is a simple thing we can do to bring families back together again. The new visitation service will connect those being detained to visitors, which will inspire new friendships. This reinforces our goal to connect families and build community.”
Mira Loma Detention Facility is closing. A couple of days ago, CIVIC blogged about the possible closure of the Mira Loma Detention Facility in Southern California. Since then, CIVIC has learned that ICE has begun to transfer immigrants from Mira Loma to Adelanto.
Mira Loma was one of the top five largest detention facilities in the United States, according to ICE. It had a capacity to hold up to 1,400 human beings for ICE. Most of the individuals previously detained at Mira Loma already have been transferred to Adelanto, and CIVIC believes there are about approximately 100 immigrants remaining at Mira Loma. The remaining individuals may be moved to Adelanto (a privately-run detention facility) or other Southern California facilities by the end of November 2012. (See CIVIC’s Interactive Map for a list of known ICE-contracted facilities.)
Adelanto is located in San Bernardino, California. Back in late June 2012, ICE reported to CIVIC that ICE’s contract with GEO Group allowed for the housing of up to 650 immigrants in detention. Although Adelanto is run by GEO Group, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has had a 287(g) contract with ICE since 2005.
CIVIC will continue to update you on the closure of Mira Loma. If you believe your loved one remains detained at Mira Loma or was previously detained at Mira Loma and you are unable to locate your loved one, call CIVIC at 385-21-CIVIC.
In the last fifteen years, immigration detention has increased dramatically. The U.S. government held approximately 6,000 persons in immigration detention on any given day in 1994 compared to 20,000 persons by 2001 and over 32,000 in 2011. The sharp increase came as a result of the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in 1996, which eliminated the possibility of deportation waivers for certain crimes and created several classes of individuals who are not entitled to release from custody on their own recognizance or after posting bond.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has run the Mira Loma Detention Center, one of the largest immigration jails in the state, for more than a decade. But next month, the center is scheduled to close because Sheriff Lee Baca says that his department cannot afford to uphold ICE’s 2008 PBNDS. For example, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department cannot afford to provide basic medical services outlined in the 2008 detention standards.
Read more at the LA Times.
CIVIC’s Leadership Council identified peer support as one of the visitation movement’s four main priorities. Our goal is to provide peer support to one another by creating a space for immigration detention visitors to plan together, dream together, console one another, and encourage one another in our common efforts.
On September’s national monthly call, we talked about supporting one another as leaders, understanding that leading and building a visitation program is a spiritual and emotional undertaking as much as it is about building a strategic plan and coordinating visits.
Sara Mullally, member of CIVIC’s Leadership Council and coordinator of the Arkansas-based visitation program, suggested these two books: Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others and Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself As Effectively As You Care for Everyone Else.
We also shared with members a beautiful piece by Rev. Eric Dawson, who reminds us of the importance of rituals: “…We often assume that the rituals are religious but they don’t have to be. The possibility for rituals pop up in unusual places. You have to look for them but they are there. In the cadence of laptop typing, the rhythms of rush–hour traffic, popping of chewed gum by a child on the bus. And even in airport security lines. Seeing these patterns allows us mini moments to see the world and ourselves a little differently…”
A visitor volunteer, Mary Helen Doherty, in California reminded me today about the importance of keeping the dialogue about peer support alive when she shared with me this website. It looks like immigration detention visitor volunteers are not the only ones focusing on community care. Let’s keep the conversation going…
Posted by Sally Pillay, Rev. John Guttermann, & Christina Fialho
According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, Video Visits for Children Whose Parents are Incarcerated: In Whose Best Interest?, a growing number of correctional facilities are moving to video visitation because it can be managed by fewer staff than traditional visitation, reduces the chances of contraband being introduced into facilities, and can potentially generate revenue. The Ada County Jail in Idaho allows visitors to register for two free 25-minute video visits per week and charges a small fee for additional visits. In contrast, Indiana’s Rockville Correctional Facility charges families $12.50 for 30 minutes of virtual visitation, which is only slightly less than the $15 charge for a 30-minute local phone call. On page 3, it says Ada County can make $2 million over the next two years in revenue. I assume the other facility may be making even more than that since Ada County provides free video visits per week.
Visitors to immigrants in detention are experiencing the effects of video visitation and exorbitant phone calls rates on the immigration detention system. In Northern California, Contra Costa County is considering implementing video visitation, according to Detention Dialogues. In Minnesota, visitor volunteers with Conversations with Friends have personal experience taking a series of calls from a person in detention. The series of short calls cost the visitor volunteer some $200. When the visitor volunteer spoke to one of the jail supervisors, he was told that the jail made good money on the calls.
In New Jersey, Essex County makes $920,000 commission from phone calls persons in immigration detention and others make, according to visitor volunteers with IRATE & First Friends. It is not worse than the facilities studied above, but certainly shows how the U.S. government is making money off the vulnerable and those who cannot fight back.
CIVIC and visitation programs around the country, like IRATE & First Friends in New Jersey, Conversations with Friends in Minnesota, and Detention Dialogues in California are keeping an eye on this trend. As visitors, we do not think anyone incarcerated should have to pay such costs as they work to maintain family connections, but to require people in non-punitive, civil immigration detention to pay these rates is an abuse. We firmly believe that to charge families for visits is cruel and an attack on family values.
Some food for thought and to share…
Friends of Orange County Detainees Orientation/Training
Sunday, November 11, 1:00-3:00 at Tapestry
What/Who are the Friends of OC Detainees?
Posted by Jan Meslin
We are a group of caring people who visit men and women in immigration detention in Orange County Jails. We visit the James Musick Facility in Irvine right now but will soon expand to the Santa Ana City Jail where many LGBT individuals reside, and eventually to the Theo Lacey Facility in Orange. So far we are made up of 8 from Tapestry, 3 from Laguna Beach UU, 2 from Orange Coast UU, one Quaker from LA, and 2 Catholics. Our purpose is simply to help these women and men in detention end their feelings of isolation and to make them a little happier. We have a very good support system from CIVIC. Learn more about such visitation programs at www.endisolation.org
It has taken us almost 2 years to get to the point where we are actually visiting, 2 years of building relationships with attorneys, the Sheriff’s department, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), jail staff, other visitation programs, etc. It has been a transformative experience for us, and we feel we are helping to make the world a better place.
Last month, we conducted a tour of the James Musick Facility, accompanied by CIVIC’s Christina Fialho. While we have been visiting with immigrants during regular visiting hours, we are now working with ICE and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to supplement this visitation program with once-a-month contact visits in a classroom-style setting. CIVIC has collaborated with ICE and the Sheriff’s Department on our behalf, and we are excited to see where this takes us!
We’d love to have you join us on November 11 to learn more about our program and/or to join our efforts. Questions? Email Jan Meslin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are standing on the side of love.
Posted by Christina Fialho
I had the wonderful opportunity to lead one of three breakout sessions for the 29th Latin American Encuentro Conference, hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Southern California Unit. Jan Meslin, Coordinator of the Orange County-based visitation program, Friends of Orange County Detainees, organized the conference. Speakers included Blase Bonpane, Director of the Office of the Americas; Gustavo Arellano of the O.C. Weekly; and Norma Chinchilla, Professor of Sociology & Women’s Studies at Cal State University Long Beach.
A large group of individuals expressed interest in starting a visitation program at Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernardino County and/or the Mira Loma Detention Center. Exciting things are happening!
I personally was really moved by one of the songs sung at the event, called Stand. It made me think of all the men and women in the visitation movement who have persisted against all odds to start visitation programs, to offer friendship and love to men and women in immigration detention. Despite the injustice we see every day as visitors, “No fear nor sorrow can turn us back.” And as we continue to build momentum to end the isolation and abuse of men and women in immigration detention, “We will reach as we have reached before / For there is no stranger in this our home.”
Stand was written by Singer Songwriter Amy Carol Webb. Amy was preparing music for a worship service at UU Raleigh, with the Rev. Tom Rhodes. His topic: What could we accomplish if we really stood together? Amy hung up the phone and this song exploded.
Here is a version of it on the web and the words are reprinted below. Enjoy!
© 2008, Amy Carol Web
I will stand with you – Will you stand with me
And we will be the change — That we hope to see
In the name of love — In the name of peace
Will you stand, will you stand with me
When injustice raises up its fist
And fights to stop us in our tracks
We will rise and as one resist
No fear nor sorrow can turn us back
When pain and hatred churn up angry noise
And try to shout down our freedom song
We will rise in one joyful voice
Loud and clear and ever strong
When broken hearts come knocking on our door
Lost and hungry and so alone
We will reach as we have reached before
For there is no stranger in this our home
In the name of love – In the name of peace –
Will you stand, will you stand with me