Immigration Detention Visitation Programs are Spreading Around Texas!

Guest Blogger, Elaine Cohen, attended a Hutto Visitation Program (HVP) orientation in October of 2011 and began visiting immigration detention centers in Texas almost immediately.  Since then she has visited with over a dozen women from Central America and Africa and provided invaluable support and coordination for Grassroots Leadership's collaboration with CIVIC (Community Initiatives to Visit Immigrants in Confinement) to visit three Texas cities to talk about immigration detention visitation.  Her degree in Religion and Women's Studies comes together in this work at the juncture of Human Rights and Social Justice.   

Grassroots Leadership's Executive Director, Bob Libal and CIVIC's Co-Executive Director, Christina Mansfield, planned and carried out a three city tour to Houston, Austin and San Antonio on October 10, 11 and 12th.  The purpose of the tour was to generate interest in starting visitation programs in the Houston and San Antonio areas.  Bob and Christina's combined knowledge covered an ample spectrum on the private prison industry's involvement in immigrant detention centers and the actual conditions within these facilities across the country.

The first event was held in the hall of the Dominican Sisters in Houston, Texas.  Sister Ceil, long a supporter of LIFT (Liberating Immigrant Families Together) received Bob, Christina and myself with careful thought and preparation.  Members of LIFT helped get the word out and people began arriving and enjoyed some refreshments we had prepared.

CIVIC's new short film which they just completed in NYC was presented, along with another short by Texans United for Families (TUFF) member Matt Gossage.  The CIVIC film presented important facts and included voices of those in detention.  Matt's film is a brief, personal interview with Naz and Hope, who have experienced first-hand the impact of immigration detention and have subsequently become eloquent advocates for ending detention.  The two films set the tone for the discussion which followed.  

Participants included members of various Houston communities, including people who had participated in the Polk demonstrations as well as the recent TUFF/LIFT retreat.  By the end of the evening there was consensus that it was time to begin a Visitation Program at the Houston Processing Center!  LIFT will lead these efforts.

October 11th was a busy day for the tour.  After a restful and hospitable stay in the home of friends in Houston we drove back to Austin just in time to present a program in the Utopia Theatre of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.  This event was attended by close to 20, students, faculty and even the School of Social Work Dean, Dr. Luis H. Zayas.  The films were presented and the discussion included some of the social work students who have been active in the Hutto Visitation Program.

At the end of the presentation I had an opportunity to talk to many of the students who were hearing about our program at Hutto for the first time.  Many expressed interest in becoming visitors and will be attending the next Visitor Orientation that is scheduled for November 14th at the Grassroots Leadership office in Austin.  

Friday evening, HVP held its monthly potluck to coincide with Christina's visit to Austin.  Those in attendance included experienced visitors and newly oriented friends preparing for their first visit.  Christina's experience in California, as well as her familiarity with the other programs around the country, provided new information and understanding of the task at hand.  

The next morning, Saturday, October 12, we set off early for San Antonio, coffee in hand, and we soon found ourselves at the University Presbyterian Church in time to set up for our 10 am event.  Once again, as in Houston, we were met warmly by two members of Reverend Kelly Allen's congregation, who helped make the event the success it was.  

San Antonio is close to two large detention centers: Pearsall and Karnes but has had no formal visitation program.  The presence of four staff members from the RAICES legal program underlined the need for visitation at these facilities.  A number of Rev. Allen's congregants were present, as well as San Antonio residents from other churches and organizations.  The discussion was lively and it soon became apparent that like Houston, San Antonio was ready to start a visitation program.  

Jonathan Ryan, the Executive Director of RAICES, volunteered to get the initiative moving.  It is expected that we will soon hear of San Antonio's decision on which of the two detention centers will be visited.  

We returned to Austin on Saturday afternoon, tired, but satisfied that our primary goals for the tour had been accomplished.  Both Houston and San Antonio had taken the first step of deciding to start a Visitation Program and Austin had enthusiastic new friends from the UT School of Social Work to join the Hutto Visitation Program.   Of course, members of HVP and Grassroots Leadership in Austin will be staying in good communication with the groups in Houston and San Antonio.   It is likely that some of the more experienced visitors in HVP can be helpful to the groups in Houston and San Antonio and share what we have learned.  

The number of Visitation Programs in Texas is about to have a real growth spurt.  Some of us can even begin to envision responding to the needs of those detained near El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.  The positive response and enthusiastic participation from the friends, old and new, in Houston and San Antonio indicates that programs like this can be successful in promoting the work of Visitation Programs to those in immigrant detention.

A special thanks to the Grassroots Leadership staff in Austin: Lauren, Holly and Kymberlie, whose work, advice and attention helped make this program a success.