by Jan Meslin, Freedom for Immigrants

I am still thinking about my time in McFarland, CA on Tuesday, January 21. I don’t remember ever witnessing firsthand such greed, avarice, hate, dismissiveness, and total disconnect with the community. You may have heard of McFarland because of the good movie based on true events where a largely Latino high school cross country team overcame adversity to become state champions. I guess that’s one of the reasons I went, to see McFarland myself. But I mostly went because GEO Group wants to convert a state prison to detain immigrants and also wants to build another detention center in McFarland. This was their first of two chances for public comments. Are they worried about AB 32 that was passed against private prisons? They did manage to get new 15-year contracts written before AB 32 took effect January 1st. Do they want to appease their stockholders?  I went to witness but also to speak words.

GEO wants to convert a state prison to detain immigrants and also wants to build another detention center in McFarland

It was other worldly. I walked up to the city council chambers to see hundreds of others…. in two camps. On the left were community members and allies, mostly young women and men. I didn’t realize at the time that 95% of McFarland is Latinx or Hispanic. On the right (although not so many as on the left) were GEO employees and city officials, even an official from Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s office. Lots of men in suits. There was a rope between us and police were there so we didn’t step across that rope. Yes, can you believe it? And I thought Orange County was bad!

I easily found Linda and Jeannie from the KWESI visitation group; they were toward the back. I moved up when they asked those who wanted to speak to fill out a speaker card. I had prepared comments from Freedom for Immigrants talking points. Two hours later I was finally called to speak. Yes, this after several GEO spokespeople touted why McFarland needs these detention centers, and the good jobs they will bring. That people are treated well by GEO. That they meet detention standards. Really? I know different based on several civil rights complaints and statistics from compliance inspections regarding inadequate medical and psychological health care, lack of access to legal counsel, and issues with the disciplinary process and disciplinary segregation. And only 4 of the 16 ICE national detention standards are met. Freedom for Immigrants sent a letter to each of the commissioners detailing these abuses.

When people were finished speaking on the GEO side, they would come out and many of us would boo.

The discussion went on and on, several people speaking to how wonderful GEO is. Then a couple of employees spoke about how great GEO treats them. This went on for a good hour. Finally it was time for public comments. First they took comments from people who were for building these new prisons. McFarland community members waited and waited until they were finally called. There was continual loud cheering on both sides. Mostly “We Want Jobs” from the GEO side. Community members chanted “Stop GEO,”  “Abolish ICE,” and “Dignity Not Detention.” When people were finished speaking on the GEO side, they would come out and many of us would boo. I won’t forget one man who smirked at us. And I won’t forget the tall man who was intently taking pictures of us; I wish I would have taken his picture.

We were outside the whole time and it was cold! When I finally spoke, one of the last ones (which was fine), I looked around the room inside. The people who got seats were business people… mostly in black suits. Unbelievable.

Oh yeah, and there was no translator provided by the city. Someone from the crowd agreed to volunteer. Even I with my rudimentary Spanish could tell we needed a professional translator! I hope the three from the ACLU who spoke take that up; isn’t it illegal to not provide a translator when they know that many community members are monolingual Spanish speakers? At one point ACLU members and others went out and brought back coffees and hot chocolates. Then someone went to get pizzas for everyone. Other organizations represented included Rapid Response Network of Kern, Faith in the Valley, UFW, Dolores Huerta Foundation, Community Action Partnership, Freedom for Immigrants, Sisters of St. Joseph, and Detention Watch Network.

Our community lives in fear when there are immigrant prisons.

I love the young people. Their spirit. They were so passionate…. and spoke well when they finally got a chance. Maybe 25 people (young and old, a diverse group) spoke against having GEO there. Put city money into parks and education, not prisons, they argued. Our community lives in fear when there are immigrant prisons. The jobs aren’t good. Many GEO employees are not from McFarland or even Bakersfield. No, national detention standards inside are NOT being met. We don’t want our tax money to go toward more prisons. Is this really what we want McFarland to be? Wonderful people inside are wasting their lives away when they could be making our country better. It was heartening to hear several people say “I am a KWESI volunteer and visit people at Mesa Verde.” This is transformative work if it’s something you can do. The more we learn, the more we want to end this abusive system designed to make profits off of suffering.

I go to Bakersfield to visit and advocate for people at Mesa Verde Detention Center each month. I usually bring others from the San Luis Obispo area. We hope we don’t have to also go to McFarland, about a half hour north of Bakersfield. GEO also wants to expand Mesa Verde from 400 beds to 1,000. If they get their way there will be a total of about 2,000 beds for immigrants. Remember: none of the people in immigration detention are serving time for crimes.

We don’t want McFarland to become another Adelanto, a city of prisons:

Remember: none of the people in immigration detention are serving time for crimes.

In 6 months there will be another public meeting where community members can voice their opinions once again. I plan to be there. Will city commissioners listen? They certainly didn’t seem to this time! I’m thinking the decision on whether to go ahead or not may be made at that next meeting. We must keep resisting! We are right!

Jan Meslin

Jan is a founder of Friends of Orange County Detainees, which has grown since 2012 to become one of the largest immigration detention visitation programs in the country, helping to end isolation at the three public jails in Orange County, California, that house approximately 1,000 immigrants.

For Freedom for Immigrants, Jan is focused on helping communities across the United States start immigration detention visitation programs. She also runs Freedom of Immigrant's Direct Support Fund, providing people in detention and their families with direct financial support.

Jan is a board member for OCCCO, Orange County’s PICO affiliate, an interfaith community organizing group working for a compassionate and fair immigration system among other related issues. She also is on the immigrant justice team for the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry based in Sacramento.

Jan received the 2016 Unsung Hero Award from Orange County Human Relations for her work with Freedom for Immigrants.