God calls members of the Christian faith and other faith traditions to welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner: what better way to answer God’s calls than to visit men and women in U.S. immigration detention? Right now, over 32,000 migrants remain isolated in immigration detention facilities because there is no legally protected right to visitation, phone calls can cost up to $5.00 per minute, and 46% of detained migrants are transferred at least twice—often out of state and away from their families.
On February 7, 2013, my organization Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) took a delegation of evangelical Christian pastors and parishioners to Theo Lacy Facility to visit with men in immigration detention. CIVIC is a national organization working to end the isolation and abuse of men and women in U.S. immigration detention by building and strengthening volunteer visitation programs. Visitation programs connect asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, and other migrants in civil immigration detention to community members on the outside for weekly visits. Visitor volunteers offer a ministry of presence in the midst of a dehumanizing situation, and they protect against human rights abuses and improve government transparency.
CIVIC believes that our current immigration detention system will only change if more Americans are engaged intellectually and soulfully with men and women impacted by the system. CIVIC educates Americans by providing them with the opportunity to tour detention facilities and develop long-term relationships with people in immigration detention through weekly visitation.
The participants in this delegation to Theo Lacy had never been inside an immigration detention facility, although some of them live just a few blocks from the facility. Theo Lacy, “home” to as many as 568 asylum seekers and other migrants from across the world, is located approximately 100 miles north of the US-Mexican border in Orange County, California. According to information received from a California Public Record Request filed by CIVIC, Theo Lacy has increased its bed capacity for people in immigration detention from 472 men in 2010 to 568 in 2012. On average, the county receives over $2,000,000 from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) per month to house people in immigration detention. The intergovernmental service agreement between Orange County and ICE indicates that ICE pays the county $118 per person per day to be housed at either Theo Lacy Facility or James Musick Facility. In late 2012, the Detention Watch Network labeled Theo Lacy one of the 10 worst immigration detention facilities in the country.
Over the course of the afternoon, our small group met with about 50 men in immigration detention, all of whom expressed a desire to connect with the outside world. The men with whom we visited explained that they did not know their rights and felt they were treated as “criminals,” although they were not serving time for any crime. One young man asked us if we could provide the jail with a sign that explained their rights as civil immigration detainees.
Unfortunately, a sign describing their rights might not be very helpful because although these men are technically in civil confinement, they are held in a punitive environment without the safeguards of even the criminal justice system. Therefore, the sign would say that because they are not in criminal custody, they are not afforded a right to a court appointed attorney. This is why approximately 84 percent of people in immigration detention represent themselves in their removal proceedings. The sign also would read that because they are not in criminal custody, they are not afforded one free phone call. This is why CIVIC receives phone calls from family members on the outside whose loved ones have literally disappeared. Without money to place a call, men and women float through the immigration detention system for days or even months without the ability to notify loved ones of their whereabouts.
Finally, the sign would say that because they are not in criminal custody, there is no fixed sentence and no time limit for how long they may remain in immigration detention while fighting their case. I have been told countless times that the worst horror of the immigration detention experience is the sheer fear of the unknown. Immigration proceedings can take anywhere from weeks to months to years, particularly if there are federal appeals involved. In fact, one of CIVIC’s visitor volunteers has been communicating with a man in immigration detention for seven years! The psychological impact of not knowing when or if one might be released or deported makes detention particularly difficult.
God designed human beings to seek community with other humans. When we are removed from our communities and isolated in cement buildings with little control over our destiny, the psychological toll can be devastating. As Pastor Robb Tarr, a participant in this visit to Theo Lacy, reflected, “I can’t imagine being in a place that had so little grounding for who you are and where you’re going in your life.”
The way I see it, God has called us to “show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” (Hebrews 13:2). If these men and women are not allowed to remain living in my community, I will show hospitality by bringing my community to them.
Therefore, CIVIC is foremost an expression of community fellowship. While CIVIC receives seed funding from the Echoing Green Foundation, CIVIC functions through the generous support of community members who strengthen the visitation movement by contributing their time as volunteer visitors or by donating to CIVIC.
To join us in ending the isolation of men and women in immigration detention, watch and share this video and learn more at www.endisolation.org:
Christina Fialho is the co-founder and fulltime co-executive director of CIVIC, an attorney in California, a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow, and a Steering Committee Member of the Detention Watch Network. Christina has witnessed the transformative effects of visitation, and while there are CIVIC-affiliated programs at 24 detention facilities in 13 states, Christina hopes to one day see an end to the isolating practice of immigration detention. You can find CIVIC on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube , and via their website www.endisolation.org. You also can contact her at [email protected]
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