Who's Visiting Immigrant Detainees At The Adelanto Detention Center?
Two years ago, Edie Salisbury hadn't heard of the Adelanto Detention Center. Now, the retired psychologist leads members of her faith community on monthly trips into California's largest immigrant lock-up, 80 miles northeast of LA.
Salisbury is a Quaker -- part of the Christian group formally known as the Religious Society of Friends who faced historical persecution in England and the colonial U.S.
"Quakers have a long history of visiting people who are in prison," said Salisbury, as she drove with a group of volunteers recently to Adelanto. "In fact, they were imprisoned themselves to begin with. That's pretty clear, and the work we do is supported by the Quaker community."
Members of her Pasadena Quaker meeting joined a visitation network for immigrant detainees after hearing a presentation by Freedom For Immigrants. The California-based advocacy group sends more than 4,000 volunteers to 55 large detention centers across the country, to offer support and monitor conditions.
"Many of our volunteers and visitation groups are also part of faith-based groups," said Liz Martinez, director of advocacy and strategic communications at the non-profit. "When you look at the immigration issue as a whole, whether it's providing sanctuary or doing other advocacy work, faith-based groups are really at the core of this movement."
In recent weeks, public outrage over what's happening inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers has been growing following reports of inhumane conditions at a facility in Texas where children are detained.
Since it opened in 2011, California's Adelanto facility has similarly been under scrutiny, facing accusations of inadequate medical care and substandard conditions for its 1,700 adult detainees.
Watchdog groups have issued scathing reports citing violations like spoiled food, dirty bathrooms, minimal contact with family and friends, inadequate mental health care, and sexual abuse. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security's office of inspector general reported finding 15 nooses made of braided bedsheets created by desperate detainees.
It's stories like these that motivate Salisbury to spend time with immigrants in confinement.
"We tell them that we do not believe they should be there, because we think it's really important for them to know there are at least some people who believe that they are being treated unjustly," Salisbury said.
Adelanto is run by Geo Group, a private prison company that contracts with ICE. The facility detains asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants, some recently released from prison after serving time for various crimes. They're all waiting for decisions from immigration courts.
Quaker teachings encourage Salisbury's group of progressive Christians to see value in every human, no matter who they are.
"There is a belief that there is the light of the spirit in everyone. The same in every immigrant who comes for asylum," said Arthur Kegerreis, another Pasadena Quaker in the visitation group. "You go to visit people, hear their stories. There's points of empathy to reach."
As the group arrived at Adelanto women's wing, Salisbury passed out the list of people they'd be visiting. It included the names of women from Mexico, Central America, Africa, Brazil and Ukraine. Most have no family or friends to visit them, so they've signed up for visits from groups like this.
"We see a very small percentage of the people who are being held there," Salisbury said. "We're only seeing people who ask for visitors."
Most of the volunteers had been there before, but it was the first time for Ecri Gutierrez, a Mexican-American with a relative in the Pasadena Quaker meeting.
"I'm the child of immigrant parents, and I wanted to come and see firsthand what the situation is with immigrants," Gutierrez said, sitting in a small waiting room and scanning the list of names for Spanish speakers. "Because my whole family came up through the immigration system. So, this is kind of near and dear to my heart."
Next to her, a woman scribbled a phone number on the sole of her shoe. It was a national hotline that detainees can call to seek support or report abuse, run by Freedom For Immigrants.
"We can't take anything in," said volunteer Jean Lester. "Not even paper or pencil, so she's writing the hotline on her shoe. Some people wrote it on their arms."
After waiting for an hour, Arthur Kegerreis and Jean Lester walked through a metal detector into the visitation room and sat at a table across from Bilda Aguilar, a 35-year-old Guatemalan woman wearing a red jumpsuit and surgical mask.
"There's something going around," she said.
The Quakers didn't speak much Spanish, and Aguilar doesn't speak much English, so it was hard to communicate, but she said it was nice just to have anyone to talk to. Aguilar told her visitors she spends her time in Adelanto cleaning for a dollar-a-day wage, preparing for immigration court and thinking about her children -- who she hasn't seen in many months.
After about 40 minutes, the visitors stood up, hugged Aguilar, and left.
On the drive back to Pasadena, Arthur Kegerreis said he knows visits can only do so much. Over the past couple of years, he's sent detainees books, helped raise bail money, even showed up at deportation proceedings.
"They kind of told us at the start we're just there to show up and be compassionate listeners," Kegerreis said. "But it's hard to visit these people and see what's going on and not want to take action, somehow, to help out."
California currently has more than 5,000 detention beds and ICE is looking to expand. For Edie Salisbury, leading these visits with Quakers has made her realize these same groups need to be involved politically as well.
"I'm hoping that we're going to move into training some people and recruiting some people to go to our elected representatives and let them know the things that we want to see changed," Salisbury said. "There's a long list."
She says her group will advocate for legislation like the DONE Act, which was introduced last year in Congress and would increase oversight of detention centers and cut funding to build new ones.
Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.
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