Detention Stories

Detention Stories: Life Inside California’s New Angel Island
Detention Stories: Life Inside California's New Angel Island
“They journeyed across the Pacific, seeking better lives for themselves and for their children. Many arrived at Angel Island, weary but hopeful only to be unjustly confined for months and in some cases years. As we remember their struggle, we honor all who have been drawn to America by dreams of limitless opportunity.”President Barack Obama, January 24, 2010
The history of immigration detention in California began in the early 1900s on a small island, off the coast of San Francisco. The Angel Island Immigration Station operated from 1910 to 1940. Established as a site to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, Angel Island was used to detain men and women, including husbands and wives separated from each other until they were admitted to the United States or deported. Similar to immigration laws today, the Chinese Exclusion Act was a result of economic depression that increased anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. And like many detention facilities operating in California today, Angel Island was isolated and people were detained indefinitely.
The Chinese Exclusion Act and other restrictionist measures of this era led to the United States’ first national immigration policy, and the United States began employing detention as a key immigration control mechanism. When restrictionist immigration laws were scrapped after World War II, Angel Island closed and the practice of immigration detention greatly decreased. However, since the 1980s, the United States has increasingly returned to the practice of detaining immigrants systematically.

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CIVIC has launched the first storytelling and reporting platform for immigrants detained across the globe.

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Today, approximately 5,000 men and women are held in civil immigration detention each day in California. This includes asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, and even legal permanent residents with longstanding community ties. Even U.S. veterans, such as John Ferron, face detention and banishment from a country they would have died to protect. Although lacking proper documentation is not a crime in the United States, these men and women are detained for months and sometimes years in county jails and for-profit prisons. Until now, their stories have been locked up with them.
In immigration detention, there are few opportunities for creativity. Women at the James Musick Facility in Orange County, California, risk solitary confinement when they try to express their feelings:

Detention Stories: Life Inside California’s New Angel Island explores the social and cultural world inside California’s immigration detention centers through individuals who are in the best position to describe it: men and women in detention. These powerful storytellers help illustrate how where we are truly impacts who we are. Storytellers, such as Carlos Hidalgo whose experience in detention transformed him into an activist, shed light on how we can determine the role, power, and responsibility of people in a community. Carlos was detained at one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the United States, the Adelanto Detention Facility. This facility is run by GEO Group, a publicly-traded corporation. The first private detention center for immigrants was opened in 1984 in Houston. After 9/11, private prisons grew exponentially, as did their profits and lobbying expenditures.

California is home to the largest number of undocumented immigrants, and thousands of Californians are from mixed-immigration status families. According to the Center for American Progress, 16.6 million people in the United States belong to mixed-status families with at least one U.S. citizen and one undocumented member. These families are separated indefinitely when undocumented parents and siblings are detained and deported. In fact, the Applied Research Center reported that nearly a quarter of the children who have ended up in foster care after their parents were detained or deported are from California:

Despite the fact that many Californians have been directly affected by immigration detention, most U.S. citizens living in the Golden State do not know that the federal government detains over 400,000 men and women in immigration detention annually. Most Californians do not know that the largest concentration of detained immigrants in the entire country is in their home state. This is because many of the nine major immigration detention facilities in California are located in rural communities, such as Adelanto or Marysville. Additionally, people who have lived for years in California are often transferred away from their communities of support when they are detained, isolating them further from resources and the means to effectively advocate for themselves:

Some of these individuals who are transferred can spend years in immigration limbo, even if they are fortunate enough to be represented by counsel. Sylvester Owino has spent over eight years in immigration detention! At one point, he was close to obtaining a bond hearing, under Rodriguez v. Robbins. On April 16, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Rodriguez that immigrants who have been locked up six months or longer have a right to a bond hearing to determine whether or not they should continue to be detained. The ruling stands to benefit thousands of people in immigration detention across the Ninth Circuit, where an estimated 25% of people in immigration detention are held every year. The federal government’s response to the ruling was to conduct mass transfers. Owino was transferred from the Ninth Circuit, which includes California, to a remote facility outside of the Ninth Circuit in Alabama.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for immigration detention, further isolates people by subjecting them to solitary confinement. Solitary confinement of immigrants in detention is often arbitrarily applied, inadequately monitored, harmful to health, and a violation of due process rights. At the Otay Detention Facility in San Diego, immigrants are often pressured by ICE into forfeiting their right to a fair hearing and a chance to live in the United States lawfully:

Vulnerable populations, such as transgender immigrants, are held in solitary confinement across the country. At the Santa Ana City Jail, up to 64 gay and transgender immigrants are held in what ICE terms a “protective custody unit.” In this final audio clip, Victoria Villalba and Yordy Cancino discuss the abuse they suffered in immigration detention for being LGBTQ. Here, we are experimenting with pure audio because in many ways it is the ideal medium to collect stories. Audio is a uniquely visual medium that requires listeners to use their imagination. Listeners are required to envision the detention facility and follow the experience of the storyteller.
Victoria and Yordy’s journey began in the hieleras, or iceboxes, which are frigid cells used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to pressure immigrants apprehended at the border to agree to deportation. Numerous carvings and writings in several languages can be found on the walls of the iceboxes. These iceboxes are reminiscent of the facilities on Angel Island where more than 135 poems were carved into the walls. After suffering for days and sometimes weeks in these iceboxes, immigrants like Yordy and Victoria are transferred to one of the long-term immigration detention facilities run by ICE. Victoria and Yordy were both transferred to the Otay Detention Facility. After Yordy was released, Victoria was transferred again to the Santa Ana City Jail.

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Detention Stories: Life Inside California’s New Angel Island was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Cal Humanities or NEH. Experience more at

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Project Producer: Christina Fialho
Technical Coordinator: Will Coley
Humanities Advisors: Kristina Shull and Angana Chatterji
Music: Podington Bear and J.P. Rose
Storytellers: Marcela Castro, Carlos Hidalgo, Yu Wang, Eric Adrian Vallejo, Sylvester Owino, Victoria Villalba, and Yordy Cancino
Sapphire Co-Sponsor: First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego
Emerald Co-Sponsors: Irvine United Congregational Church, Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica, and Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church
Special thanks to CIVIC’s affiliated visitation programs in California for their support and encouragement throughout this project!

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