by Jan Meslin

Art on the border wall in Playas Tijuana, Mexico. “Standing on the Side of Love” is an advocacy campaign against all forms of oppression by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Photo Credit: Tina Shull

I just got a call from the Pine Prairie Detention Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana. I know, you’ve probably never heard of it; hardly anyone has. Joseph is so sad, just wanted someone to talk with. He thanked me for finding him a visitor in June, said it made him so happy. He asked if I would ask her to visit again; of course I will. Pine Prairie is more than a 3-hour drive from New Orleans, not an easy place to get to for sure. We talked about other things too. It was hard to say goodbye.

He told me, “I can’t go back to my country.”

I told him, “I wish so much I could just help you get out of that horrible place.”

Although I have never met Joseph, he holds a special place in my heart. I first heard about him from his friend Erica who lives in Delaware. She called the CIVIC voicemail, and left a plea for help for her friend. When I called her back, she said Joseph helped her when her family had to flee Liberia during the civil war there. They fled to Ghana where Joseph helped them. He even took them in for a while. Now she wants to help him, wants to save his life as he did hers. She is his sponsor, has signed on to support him temporarily in her home.

Since the election, though, cases like this are getting harder to win. She received from Ghana written proof that he will be killed if he returns to Ghana. His father expects him to take over as voodoo priest and he refuses. For this he will certainly be killed should he set foot back in Ghana. Unfortunately, it looks like that may just happen. Although seemingly sent in plenty of time, these papers arrived too late to him, shortly after he lost his asylum case. He appealed but so often the appeals just mean waiting a little while longer until removal. Yes, we contacted the group who conducts legal orientations at both places…. they have not been able to see him. The need for free and low cost immigration attorneys is overwhelming, isn’t it?

When I was in Louisiana in April, seven of us toured the LaSalle GEO Detention Center which you may have heard of. It’s also very isolated. Since it’s only an hour from Pine Prairie, three of us tried to visit there since we had names of two people who had contacted us. Joseph has been detained there since he asked for asylum at our border more than a year ago. They did not let us visit that day since it was not during normal visiting hours. I was so close.

Julie, who is leading efforts to visit one Saturday per month at LaSalle and/or Pine Prairie, was able to visit Joseph in June. I know they will make an effort to visit him again. But he remains inside and I fear will be deported. Meanwhile, his friend Erica waits in Delaware, hoping he can eventually settle there with her.

There are SO many stories like this, at each of the 210 immigration detention centers across the country. More than 70% of people in immigration detention are being held in private, for-profit facilities. These are people, not commodities. Good people whose lives are being wasted, whose families miss them so much, who are victims of our horrible immigration detention system. Who are hidden from the public. It is all so unjust, so screwed up. Each story breaks my heart into more pieces.

Why do I visit people in immigration detention?

When I moved to Orange County in 2004, I joined the closest UU congregation. I also joined the local PICO interfaith organizing group where I worked alongside immigrants who were being marginalized and attacked. In San Juan Capistrano, right next to Mission Viejo where I lived. There is a big Latinx population, many who are undocumented. We became friends. I heard their stories. We always had translators, thanks to the local organizers. In fact, we started a program where women got together. We partnered to learn and practice English and Spanish. Although not totally successful for language learning, it did help us relax and connect as people. I went to city council meetings there, saw the hate from Minutemen who also live in San Juan. It got to me. I heard people’s stories. I felt their fear a little… nothing like they did of course. When the UUA chose immigration as a moral issue to be the 4-year study action issue in 2008, I took it from there.

Now, I work with CIVIC. We are working to end immigration detention in the U.S. through community led visitation programs, independent monitoring, lifting up stories, advocating for legislation, and working for true alternatives to detention. I am a founder of the local Orange County visitation program called The Friends of Orange County Detainees. About 50 people visit weekly at the now 2 public jails that detain immigrants. In case you wonder, it’s all about money. It makes the county of Orange $110 each day for each of the 1,000 people who are detained. Again, are these people or commodities?

Just a few days ago I sat in the waiting area at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County where more than 500 men are detained simply because they do not have proper documents. In other words, none of these people are in jail for a crime. There are also more than 2,000 men there who are waiting for a sentence or serving time. I was there pretty early so there were only 16 of us when I counted. Only 3 of us waiting to visit loved ones were white, and a similar ratio for people who are detained there. I really believe we need to put race at the center of all of our justice issues.

I think the most important thing I have done to move immigrant justice forward… again, the most important thing I have done, is to simply be kind to people around me.

Especially to people who look different than me. To all people. To try and take out the judgment that is so imbedded in my privileged values. By connecting with people at a personal level this just happens naturally. I am such a “better” person since I started this work 10 years ago. I am not scared to reach out to people who are different from me. In fact I want to. I am so enriched by becoming friends with people from all walks of life. I learn so much from them. How can I not be enriched?

You have so many choices of how to spend your time. You may feel overwhelmed…. that there are so many issues to work on and you want to do everything. My advice is to find a particular passion. Or just pick an issue; they are all important and they all intersect. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone a little. Things will happen. Opportunities will become available. You will see bad things happen, yes. But you will also meet amazing people doing good work and you will see grassroots justice happening around you. It’s so worth it.

*Jan Meslin is a retired educator and Director of Social Change Development at Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).*

Read more “Allied Voices” on IMM Print