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Love the Prisoner

Karen Vance
On Love (September 2013)
Healing the World

Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is the branch of Homeland Security that runs immigration detention centers in jails and prisons across our nation.  Because most detainees are not charged with “crimes,” they are held in “civil” detention. This particular fact is at the heart of my story. Men and women held in immigration detention have none of the “rights” we associate with our criminal justice system: no right to an attorney, no right to a speedy trial, no right to a phone call, no right to have visitors.  ICE often shuffles detainees among different facilities around the country.  This means that for families and friends, their loved ones can suddenly disappear to places too far away to visit. 

I visit people in immigration detention through a national organization called Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). I visit in a for-profit city jail in Santa Ana, CA. In this case, “for-profit” means that the Federal Government pays the City of Santa Ana per diem for each detainee it holds. The city is allowed to profit by not spending money in the care of these immigrants.  Santa Ana can profit by saving money on food: I hear stories of bologna and pasta served seven days a week.  The city can save money by restricting access to medical care: a doctor visits the facility only once a month.  The city can save money by putting detainees on “lockdown” whenever a regular quota of guards is lacking. I witnessed this on Christmas Eve, when sack lunches were served for each meal and lockdown confinement was expected to continue throughout that day and into the next.

Because my son is transgender, I choose to visit detainees in a unit dedicated to transgender women and gay men. Some guards in this pod require transgender women to use and respond only to male pronouns, and they require them to use their “big boy voices.”  Should these women use their female names, female pronouns, or female voices, they can be disciplined – including lockdown confinement. Because this unusually cruel guard behavior contravenes ICE’s own stated policies, ICE allowed CIVIC to conduct a very short training with these guards about transgender issues. More of these trainings are badly needed, as CIVC attorney Christina Fialho reported in a recent blog entry in the Huffington Post.

And here begins the truly painful part of my story:  ICE made a determination, based on Ms. Fialho’s blog, that anyone who uses publications or social media to communicate about their experiences with immigration detention (e.g., in Western Friend or Facebook) is no longer writing as an individual citizen, but as a media representative. In this ruling, ICE quoted Facebook entries and blog posts made by visitors like myself, indicating their familiarity with our social media.  And then, ICE suspended or shut down three detainee visitation programs indefinitely. They mean to discourage any visitor from speaking out at any time, in any way – as I am here. We have learned that this is a tactic that ICE is using throughout the country.

Remember these immigrants are civil detainees with no customary rights. Every detainee, in every state, looks forward to a visit from a person who will listen and care. In the case of transgender detainees, they know that the deportations they potentially face could return them to places where torture and death are the common lot of transgender women. 

My Quaker testimony does not allow me to stand by and watch. I cannot be silent when silence would make me complicit in the bad treatment, even brutal treatment, of detainees by ICE.  I cannot be silent when silence would signify my agreement that ICE has the authority to limit my right to speak out about abuses I have witnessed as a Quaker and as a citizen.

Quakers can choose to witness the conditions in which ICE detains these human beings. We, as Quakers, can choose to grasp the scope of power allowed to ICE and Homeland Security. 

I believe Quakers must not be silent.  As Quakers, we have familiarity with penitentiary reform.  Now has proven to be a very good time for me to practice our testimonies. ~~~

To support detainee visitation, please contact CIVIC through their website at www.endisolation.org.

Karen Vance is a member of Claremont Monthly Meeting in Claremont, CA.

Immigration Social Justice National policy

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