Building Community through Detention Visitation Programs

I am very sad today. Jose, who I have been visiting at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County for a year, was deported last week. If I want to see him, I must travel to Mexico, which I will do soon, because Tijuana is only 2 hours from my house and Jose has become like a son to me. I would like to take his mother with me, but she has no documents to come back to Orange County where her job is, where her life is. She would probably be apprehended at the border and put in immigration detention, eventually to be deported. Why doesn’t she just move to Mexico where her only child now is? She may decide to do that; I don’t know. But she considers the U.S. her country, has been here for many years. And so does Jose; English is his first language and he wants to continue the life he had before incarceration. Once President Obama’s executive action becomes reality, she will probably be one of the first to apply. 

I visit with the Friends of Orange County Detainees, one of the 40 immigration detention visitation programs throughout the U.S. affiliated with CIVIC, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement. We visit at the more than 250 private prisons and public jails that house immigrants, people who are detained because they do not have proper U.S. documents. If they have committed a crime that needed time served, they did serve that time in jail and then rather than being released they are transferred to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and remain incarcerated to fight their deportations. Since they have no right to a sentence, they can languish in detention for months, even years, before eventually being released or deported, as most of them are.

In 2007, our Congress mandated and funded 33,400 (now 34,000) beds to be filled by immigrants at all times. This mandate is still in effect and is related to the tremendous increase in deportations since then. Approximately 1000 people are deported each day for a total of more than 2 million during the Obama administration. 62% of the immigrants who are detained are in private prisons, CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group being the biggest. Recently, private prisons have opened for families, most of whom are seeking asylum from violence in Central America. This punishes some of the most vulnerable people we have in our country and at the same time makes tremendous profits for the private prisons and their shareholders (which just might include you). Where I visit, it’s the county and cities that profit. It is so wrong. We taxpayers are paying $160 per night average for each of these people. Many have family members they could stay with while waiting for court dates, etc. costing taxpayers nothing.

I visit because I am disturbed about these facts and realize I can do something about it. I visit because I want to help end the extreme isolation many of these people face. I visit to help lift their stories, to help end abuses, and to end the whole detention system for immigrants. I visit because it makes me feel good to see a face light up when I come and bring a connection with the outside. 

Over the past 2 ½ years I have visited about 50 women and men in detention. I have heard some amazing stories. I have been transformed like I did not know I could be. And as I’ve become connected with the CIVIC network, I have met so many Unitarian Universalists who visit with similar programs. After all, it fits right in with our UU principles, doesn’t it? 

How can you help? 

To end on a positive note, as we UUs try so hard to do, my friend Robert will visit Jose tomorrow to offer support and resources. I visited Robert two years ago at the Santa Ana City Jail, shortly before he was deported. He connected with me recently on Facebook, is now an activist helping deportees in Tijuana. Thank you, Robert, for your good work. Thank you for helping Jose.

In faith,

Jan Meslin

Jan is a founder of the Friends of Orange County Detainees, a humanitarian program sponsored by Tapestry UU Congregation in Mission Viejo, CA. She is on the leadership team for CIVIC, the national immigrant visitation network. She is about ending isolation of immigrants in detention by visiting them, lifting up their stories, and ending abuses. She's working to end the whole detention system for immigrants. Jan chairs the immigrant justice team for the UU Justice Ministry of California and also co-chairs PICO's local affiliate OCCCO.