At the end of April, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) held its first retreat in Southern California. Bob Libal, Rocio Villalobos and I attended as representatives of the Hutto Visitation Program. We were joined by almost 60 participants who came from all corners of the U.S. There were many people who came from
Florida, Chicago, New Jersey, Alabama, Louisiana and of course, various parts of California. It was surprising to hear about the different regulations and stumbling blocks to visiting that existed in the different detention centers. In the next months, we will be sharing some of what we learned from the other visitors.
After the retreat I went to the San Francisco Bay Area where I attended another workshop — one dedicated to learning how better to document the stories, los testimonios, of those we visit. In the three intensive hours of the thesis clinic sponsored by Uni-Tierra Califas I had an opportunity to learn with people working with women in prison. The women from California are focused on the growing female incarceration figures there and discussed their visits. We discovered many commonalities with immigrant detention. Like the women in Hutto, many women in California prisons are mothers. And like our friends in Hutto, one of their major concerns is the difficulty of staying in touch with their children.
We discussed the importance of being able to listen and understand these stories and get them out to the wider world — while being careful not to exploit them. There was a lot of discussion about balancing the need to get the stories heard, while not building our own writing portfolios or careers on these women’s histories. It is a fine line, one to which I try to stay attentive as I write these posts for the Grassroots Leadership blog and newsletter.
To that end, it was while in the Bay Area that I met with a woman whom I had visited 4 or 5 times at Hutto. After 9 months in detention, she had been suddenly released, without bond, to the home of a friend in San Francisco. I was so happy for her. Unfortunately when I met her in downtown San Francisco last week I discovered that her post-detention story was not so wonderful.
It turned out that the person who had first accepted her later changed their mind, and my friend (who I am choosing not to name) found herself to be homeless. My next days in the Bay Area were tainted by this realization that life post-detention is not so simple. I contacted everyone I could think of and went with her to the Glide Memorial Church — one of the few places in San Francisco dealing with the enormous homeless population. I saw how, in contrast, Austin’s Casa Marianella is one of the rare places where immigrants can repair their lives after release from detention.
In the future I will explore more of these post-detention transitional housing programs and will report my findings here. Not all the friends we visit in detention have families or friends in the U.S. and need time to develop the kind of skills needed to survive in a new country.
If we can imagine a world without detention, we must also imagine a world where people who were formerly detained can live freely and thrive.