Credit: Peggy Thompson / Friends of Orange County Detainees

 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that families, loved ones and community members can once again visit persons detained by the federal government on May 11, 2022. It took over a month for Southern California detention centers that detain persons for ICE, such as Adelanto, Mesa Verde, and Otay Mesa, to implement in person visitation again. They withheld the power of in person visitation for far too long, resulting in more unnecessary harm to individuals and families facing deportation – some of those being Orange County residents.

Adelanto ICE processing center. Credit: Orange County Justice Fund / Tim Burns

Under the best circumstances, immigrants and refugees in detention centers will have their lawyer and their loves to advocating for them on the outside. If they cannot afford legal counsel, or are housed in a detention center inaccessible to their families, they depend on local organizations to advocate for them, such as OC Friends of Detainees, a non-profit founded when there were three immigration detention centers who collaborated with ICE, in the cities of Santa Ana, Orange and Irvine.

Over two years ago, on March 13, 2020, ICE suspended in-person visitations in detention centers nationwide, due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19. Contrary to ICE’s Covid-19 health concerns, according to Vera Institute of Justice 536,576 people have been detained nationally at any point between March 14, 2020, and June 18, 2022, and 46,010 people in detention centers have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Despite the lack of personal protective equipment (ppe) supplies, Covid-19 boosters, adequate healthcare, detention is back on the rise (see graph below).

Credit: Vera

Felicity Figueroa, a volunteer with OC Friends of Detainees has been visiting detainees in immigration detention for over 10 years, based on her experiences she recognizes the ulterior motive for visitation restrictions, “ [ICE] doesn’t want to provide ppe equipment because it’s an expense, this is all a profit-making business […] – to have visitation you need guards to watch over visitation pods and you need people at reception to process IDs –  if there’s any excuse to stop [visitation], they will justify it with a bunch of lies – the bottom line is profit”. It is clear the immigration system in America prioritizes profit over humanity, but at what cost? For immigrants in detention facilities over two years have come and gone without being able to visit their loved ones. Peggy Thompson, Chair of OC Friends of Detainees, put it best, “It makes a huge difference to be able to give someone a hug”. Even though “life has returned to normal” for most of us, and federal prisons and jails reinstated visitation in October of 2020, people in immigration detention have faced extreme isolation.

“It hasn’t only been visitation, people’s cases got stopped. There has been little progress- that is the other big mental health issue. Courts closed, no end in sight, what type of mind game does that play on you?” comments Figueroa. There is over 1,781,395 pending immigration cases in the U.S., 12,785 cases are in Orange County. These people live their lives not knowing if they are going to be forced to leave their families, homes, and communities on any given day.

The top five nationalities that make up the 1,781,395 immigration cases nationwide awaiting an immigration judge’s decision on deportation are, El Salvadorian, Guatemalan, Mexican, Honduran, and Chinese. The allowance of visitation in immigration detention centers is an essential part of individuals successfully defending against deportation orders to remain in the U.S. with their loved ones and avoid persecution in their country of origin.

Visitation not only allows for human connection, but also, for advocates of detainees to proactively help defend against deportation by filing paperwork, contacting community resources, and finding an attorney promptly. In Orange County, only 68% of the pending immigration cases have legal representation, visitation restrictions lower the odds of finding legal representation, and consequently successfully defending against deportation.

In-person visitation is powerful, and that power was taken away from thousands of people that were detained at federal immigration detention centers who were not able to visit with their loved ones or meet community members invested in their reunification with family.

Visitation Restrictions left few proactive ways for detainees to communicate with the outside world. One option was telecommunication, a video chat service that is costly and malfunctions. The other option? Written letters – a timely process that can lead to personal information being intercepted by guards. Both options are incomparable to in-person visitation.

The reinstatement of visitations at detention was a result of pressure from a national advocacy campaign led by a coalition of detained immigrants, and immigrant rights groups organized by Freedom for Immigrants.

Although implementation of visitation will improve the lives of detainees, the predicted increase in immigration due to international war and economic instability, and the repeal of Title 42 will leave many immigrants and refugees to face the many other harmful realities of the U.S. immigration system. Community Based organizations that serve immigrant and refugee populations are gearing up to support individuals and families that find themselves in ICE custody and need help navigating the immigration system in the U.S.

Chairwoman Thompson, of OC Detainees said, “Once the visitation restriction is lifted, OC Friends of detainees will try to visit again depending on volunteers and the willingness of older volunteers to risk Covid-19 and provide support to detainees.” Amongst immigrants’ rights activists it is understood that the U.S. immigration system is far from perfect. Sonali Shah, a longtime local activist said it best, “The US immigration system is built on a foundation of fear. How can you consider the importance of inter-personal connections if you do not consider immigrants as humans deserving of kindness and empathy?  If we view immigrants as ‘aliens’ to be feared instead of guests who should be welcomed, we will continue with inhumane policies.”

One way ICE can create less harm in Southern California is to allow immigrants and refugees to see their loved ones in person without restrictions, because who knows when and if that opportunity will be available to them later. It comes down to the Department of Justice, overseen by President Biden, to not only enforce ICE and DHS to follow the policies, but also to start prioritizing people over profit.

Teresa Morris, UC Santa Cruz alum, is the Development Coordinator at Orange County Justice Fund, a nonprofit organization founded in 2017 by a collaboration of community leaders, attorneys and law professors, to advocate for transformative changes in the U.S.  immigration system and support OC immigrants and refugees’ community members impacted by detention and deportation.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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