The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office and ICE are trying to silence us. But we will continue to speak out.
Our names are Catherine, Carl, Ann and William, and we are volunteers with Freedom for Immigrants, formerly known as CIVIC, and we want to know:
Why does ICE fear us?
Every Friday over the past few years, we have visited individuals in immigration detention, specifically, the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, CA.
That is until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office shut down our program on March 6.
These are the reasons they revoked our access, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s press release, after a “thorough investigation was conducted”:
- Providing [our] personal phone numbers and addresses to incarcerated persons.
- Relaying messages to family and friends of incarcerated persons.
- Receiving phone calls and mail from incarcerated persons.
- Sending contraband to incarcerated persons.
- Depositing money into the accounts of incarcerated persons.
Today is Friday, which is when we would normally be volunteering inside the facility. But we can’t, even though the ACLU and dozens of other organizations have called on officials to reinstate our access.
If we were still allowed in, this is what would be happening.
Every Friday afternoon, we would turn in our government-issued IDs and place our jackets, wallets, and keys in little coin lockers before shuffling through the metal detector, then one heavy metal door after another.
Following the silent guard and clutching a notepad on which to write with worn-down golf pencils (pens are not allowed), we would go into the room you’d imagine — with thick glass windows and telephones that we would use to communicate with individuals in immigration detention.
We are a nondescript group of local residents, young and old, from up and down the East Bay.
We come from different walks of life — small business owners, housewives, educators, retirees, IT workers, writers, students. We would meet with detained immigrant men and women to talk with them and listen to their stories. Some of us are immigrants ourselves, and/or have family members, close friends, and partners from immigrant communities.
The people we would meet with are from Mongolia, China, France, and Haiti, as well as Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — human beings from all over the world, all dressed in the same lime green clothes.
On the other side of the glass, the men and women would look back at us, sometimes in relief at seeing a familiar face, sometimes with worry, or sadness, or even quiet hope.
We would pick up the phone, smile, and share news with one another from either side of the glass.
They include asylum seekers, who are bewildered to be behind bars after escaping dangerous and traumatic experiences and who have to plead their case in hope and trust in our country. Others have been picked up without notice by ICE in front of their families, homes, and workplaces and have had their lives stopped mid-stream.
Many have languished for months or years as they await a trial with few means to contact legal help or find resources for the left-behind family.
Behind bars, they are often unable to maintain contact with loved ones for lack of resources in a system that charges exorbitant phone fees.
They do not have a right to a lawyer. They are left to their own devices to understand the exceptionally complicated immigration law that has them in its coils, to find a lawyer or to represent themselves.
As volunteers, we have operated transparently and consistently, cooperating with the jail for the last seven years to help people who have been rendered invisible by the immigration policies of our country.
Our activities have been conducted under the direct auspices of ICE itself. When our program began, ICE established a free hotline for our organization. We have gladly used it to connect the detained people with their friends and families. This line has also been used to convey messages. Mostly, people send practical messages to family, or a simple “I love you” or “please don’t worry about me.”
In the process, many of us have gotten to know the families and friends of detained people, to hear their stories, too, and to be humbled by the dedication and courage of loved ones in difficult times.
While volunteering, we would try to help in other ways, too. We would use the ATM-like machine in the lobby of the facility to donate small amounts of money to detained immigrants’ “commissary accounts” so they could buy hygienic products.
For example, if we deposited $20, about a quarter of the money would instantly go to the jail. The remaining amount would go to marked-up “luxury” items at the commissary — extra stamps, shampoo, snack, feminine hygiene products. Some of the funds would come from our own pockets, and some from our pool of money collected by a local church.
When we weren’t visiting the detained people or staffing the hotline, we would make phone calls, send emails and make visits to agencies and faith groups on the people’s behalf to secure legal aid. We would gather and make photocopies of documents that they needed for their court cases and write letters of support. We would find experts on country conditions to attest in court to the dangers that a person faces if they are deported to their home country.
For years, Freedom for Immigrants’ volunteers would also mail documents as well as requested books (mostly educational or religious) through an approved online vendor.
Now, we’re being accused of sending “contraband.” Contraband here casts a wide net, and includes items such as a self-addressed stamp envelope, blank writing paper and hardcover books, like the two Harry Potter books and one Catholic prayer book that one of us sent through Amazon.
Sometimes letters and packets are returned to us for no reason at all.
This was our general experience as visitor volunteers.
But we also did other essential things, like monitor the facility for human rights violations. In fact, Freedom for Immigrants blew the whistle on cruel and arbitrary treatment of prisoners.
In November, IMMPrint publicized complaints by women detained at the jail, who said they had been locked in cells without toilets for as long as 23 hours at a stretch. It gained a lot of media attention.
Since then, we saw increased restrictions on our communications and visits, culminating in this recent wholesale revocation of our access.
It is clear retaliation for our work and a violation of our First Amendment rights.
Here’s what each of us has to say:
- Carl Mason, visitor volunteer and demographer
We are, frankly, baffled by the Sheriff’s hasty and cruel action. Our group poses no threat to jail security and nothing in the Sheriff’s press release suggests otherwise.
On the contrary, by helping to maintain hope among the immigrant detainees, we make the jail population less volatile and the whole system a tiny bit more humane.
I fear that what we are seeing here is the poison of our national politics infecting our community. Attorney General Jeff Session’s incendiary visit to Sacramento last week is perhaps a sign that many like him would like this to happen. That they don’t want us to be compassionate human beings who help those who are less privileged than ourselves.
We must not see enemies among those who seek only to help marginalized human beings. The Sheriff has nothing to fear from Freedom for Immigrants.
It is us who should fear a system that punishes acts of kindness.
- Catherine Bae, Ph.D., immigrant, citizen and visitor volunteer
We are shocked and dismayed by Sheriff Livingston’s decision to strip us of our rights in this way. Our group gave our time and effort not because we are paid but because we seek to do what is right. We believe that everyone deserves dignity because we are all human beings, and that with any privilege we have comes a responsibility to work towards dignity for all.
We are also members of an organization that places value on the very notion of community. We understand that the people being held behind bars, like us, have families, coworkers, and friends. The impact of ongoing confinement spreads beyond each individual to devastate whole families and neighborhoods, and we seek to help others in the same way that we would expect for ourselves in our times of need.
We also understand that a healthy community, like a vibrant democracy, is one in which its people are informed of what is happening in their own neighborhoods, especially among vulnerable groups. So we do what we do, acting transparently and in cooperation with the WCDF staff and the facility’s rules and regulations to the best of our knowledge.
Every action that we have taken in WCDF, every communication has been in the plain sight of the jail staff.
For these reasons, we urge the Sheriff to restore our rights and to listen to his East Bay community, rather than to sway with the prevailing winds of the present administration.
- Ann Smock, a retired professor of French literature at UC Berkeley and visitor volunteer
I would like to draw the public’s attention to something I have learned by visiting the jail and that is the terrifying degree of isolation and powerlessness into which undocumented people are abruptly plunged when they are incarcerated.
We are glad that California is a sanctuary state. Yet we must recognize the fact that hundreds of our neighbors here in the Bay Area are nonetheless being torn from society, stripped of their autonomy. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that they are being disappeared. Or to compare their lot with that of other people in the not-very-distant past who have been rounded up and held in camps.
We must all be aware of this and refuse to let round-ups and imprisonment of undocumented immigrants continue here.
- William Smock, a Berkeley filmmaker, writer and visitor volunteer
For the past few months my wife and I have been visiting West County Detention Facility. It’s our mild-mannered way of resisting Donald Trump’s callous immigration policies.
Our fight is not with Sheriff Livingston. Our argument is with jail as a warehouse for immigrants. These people are spending two or more years in the Richmond jail as their cases for visas or asylum crawl through immigration courts. Couldn’t they live with their families until they are either admitted or deported? We don’t want to butt heads with Sheriff Livingston, or navigate the labyrinth of prison access.