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An American friend: A visitation program for immigration detainees

on February 29, 2012

Immigration has become one the most divisive, controversial and compelling topics of our time. It is also one of the most underreported and misunderstood issues in the country. More than half of the Bay Area population is estimated to be foreign-born, according to data by the Census Bureau, which increases the need for more balanced coverage of immigrant communities in our neighborhoods. As this issue takes center stage in the 2012 political arena, we hope that our coverage of immigration, as it intersects with human rights, education and health, will give you a better understanding of this multilayered issue that our nation continues to grapple with.

Crossroads is a multi-part immigration series covering issues in the East Bay.
If you have a suggestion for immigration stories in Oakland or Richmond that you would like to see told. Send suggestions for Oakland to and for Richmond to


In orange jumpsuits, behind bars, immigrants wait at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond to be deported. Detainees of all ages, races and ethnicities are grouped together for violations of law, under the watch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Through appeals, some will fight to stay in the United States and others will have to make peace with their new fate—removal from the United States and a subsequent return to their country of origin.

But while they wait, they shouldn’t be isolated—barred off from communication with family, legal help and the support of a community—according to Christina Fialho and Christina Mansfield the co-founders of Detention Dialogues, a student-led visitation and community awareness program that works to organize volunteers to visit detainees.

Detention Dialogues is the first immigration detention visitation program in California. Each week one of 40 trained volunteers visits detainees, mostly from Central and Latin America, who are being held at the West County Detention Facility, an adult medium-security jail just off Giant Highway. Detention Dialogues volunteers also visit detainees at the Sacramento County Jail and Yuba County Jail.

Their hope is to bridge the gap of isolation by visiting detainees on a regular basis and supporting them throughout their detention by contacting family members on their behalf, connecting them to attorneys and forging a bond with the outside American world.

It’s devastating to be that alone, Fialho and Mansfield said—not just in the sense of being isolated and locked up, but without family, friends, adequate legal representation and the comfort of a mutual language or community support. “A lot of people who are detained especially in city jails, there is not a lot of understanding about who they are or why they are there,” Mansfield said. “You bring someone in, you put them in a uniform and you place them in jail and they are treated as criminals when they are placed there in a different context.”

Creating a sense of understanding about why people are in detention centers is part of their challenge and their mission, Fialho said.“One of the most challenging things (about working in the immigration field) is trying to change the hearts and minds of people about immigration issues because most people are indifferent,” Fialho said. “That’s one reason we wanted to start this, so that we could connect people in the community to immigration detention so that they could learn from these individuals in detention.”

Jackie Shull Gonzalez, an immigration attorney specializing in deportations in the Mission District of San Francisco, said detention centers across the country hold individuals on various charges, everything from visa violations and illegal entry into the country to DUIs and other civil violations.

The West County Detention Facility opened in 1991 and is one of nine facilities in California contracted by ICE to hold detainees. It holds about 1,000 inmates. Of that number, an average of 120 to150 individuals are there under ICE custody and are being processed for removal from the United States based on violations of immigration laws, said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.

Haley said every illegal immigrant held at the detention center is en route to being deported. However, “immigration judges make the final decision on who goes or stays,” she said, as many people will make appeals for their cases to be heard.

When it comes to Detention Dialogues, volunteers like Nick Castro said he sees hope in what they are doing. Castro still remembers his first time volunteering in the detention center, even though it was five months ago. People were lined up on benches across from one another, some yelling to get their point across and others trying to sign. It was loud, hectic and frustrating, Castro said.

While a majority of the detainees in West County Detention Facility are of Hispanic origin, Castro, who is a second generation Mexican, didn’t use his Spanish once during the visit. He met face to face with a Jamaican detainee with a heavy Caribbean accent.

“I could barely understand him and he could barely understand me,” Castro said. Unlike in the movies, there were no phones to pick up for semi-private communication, although, true to cinema portrayal, there were glass barriers about three inches thick. “Even writing down information is very difficult. You’re not allowed to bring anything in; I mean you literally have to empty your pockets,” he said.

The detained man’s family was back East, Castro remembers. They didn’t know he was in Richmond, which is not uncommon, Castro added. “I think that hanging in the balance and that being in limbo creates a lot of the stress they experience,” he said of the detained man’s family.

ICE is not required to keep detainees in the state in which they are apprehended, so detainees are often transferred because of limited bed space to facilities outside of the initial point of arrest. It’s a system put in place to make the best use of resources, said Gonzalez.  “Most of our overflow goes to Arizona because it’s cheaper to house detainees there,” she said.

Before the start of Detention Dialogues, both Fialho and Mansfield were actively involved in immigration issues. When they decided to partner up and start the program in August 2010, Fialho was a law student studying immigrant rights at Santa Clara University School of Law. Mansfield was completing a master’s degree in cultural anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

The program took about a year to get off the ground. Initially, there was some push back from ICE, as well as the detention facility, Fialho said. But in July 2011, an ICE field coordinator met with the two and the program was approved for operation, she added. Since then, both ICE and the detention facility have been cooperative in their efforts, she said.

Fifteen of the 40 trained volunteers are currently in rotation at the WCDF. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least two visits per month, preferably one visit a week, after they undergo a two to three hour training on how to visit with a detainee, Fialho said.

“We got very lucky, our volunteer pool is very diverse,” Fialho said, highlighting that it includes college students and teachers like Castro, as well as faith leaders from various religions. They are also able to match volunteers with detainees who only speak one language whether that is Spanish, Chinese or Farsi.

Volunteer Monica Hernandez visits detainees at the Sacramento County Jail, but she spends the majority of her time working the 24-hour hotline monitored by Detention Dialogues. The number is connected to Google Voice, which assigns a unique number to any phone carrier. Persons in immigration detention also are able to call Detention Dialogues at no cost using a three-digit extension provided to Detention Dialogues through the ICE detainee pro bono telephone system.

“Lately, we’ve been inundated with so many calls,” Hernandez said, an average of 40 to 100 a day. Most are from detainees who want to be connected to an attorney or family, or similarly, from family members who are searching for a detainee.

“Really, it’s just people calling who don’t have any idea how any of this works,” Hernandez said. “One lady called and couldn’t find her brother since last August. I gave her the facility name and the address and she was really grateful.”

In the last ten years immigration sweeps have become more common and widespread. The Obama administration has increased border controls, and has achieved record deportation numbers that surpass those of the Bush administration.

In October, 2011, ICE announced that 396,906 immigrants were deported during the 2011 fiscal year, making it the largest number deported in the agency’s history for that time frame. The numbers, while high, are not significantly greater than the previous year. Approximately 392,000 immigrants were deported 2010.

In  2010 Contra Costa Country deported about 730 immigrants. Of these deportations, only 21 percent (151 individuals) were convicted criminals, making Contra Costa County one of the top 30 counties in the country for the deportation of non-criminals, according to the National Day Labor Organizing Network.

Ultimately, Mansfield said she tries not to dwell on what she calls the “broader bleak picture” that is immigration detention, she said. Instead she rests her hopes on the success of Detention Dialogues in reaching this class of otherwise “invisible people.”

“We’re often told its bureaucratic, there is a deficit in the budget—we’re given all these reasons for why things are not better for detainees, but I think that the program we started and programs that are a part of this network (of emerging visitation programs) are good,” Mansfield said of the scarcity of resources for detainees. “Community groups have the will and the man power to step in fill in the gaps of what is missing,” she said.

Castro expresses a similar sentiment. “There is always going to be pain and heartache,” he said. “Sometimes you talk to someone on the phone everyday and it’s really depressing some of these people’s situations. But you do it despite that.  The disappointment is a motivator in some ways, not a deterrent. If the alternative is doing nothing then that’s even worse.”

For more information contact Detention Dialogues at 415-574-0555 or visit For more information about current immigration laws under Immigration and Customs Enforcement visit

A new story in the Crossroads series will run every Wednesday.


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