We are members of DC, Maryland, and Virginia communities who are concerned with trends towards more intensive, more local, and more punitive enforcement of immigration laws. We provide friendship and support through social visits to people who are detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Maryland, Virginia, and southern Pennsylvania.
People who are in ICE custody – usually between 32,000 and 34,000 individuals across the country on any night – come from all walks of life and parts of the world. Each person has been charged as deportable (a civil, not criminal, charge), but there are many and varied circumstances that can lead to such a charge. Some people arrive at our borders fleeing persecution and seeking asylum, and must be detained according to law unless they can meet difficult criteria to qualify for release. Undocumented immigrants and people who have overstayed visas may be detained for that reason alone, or because they have been charged with a crime, even a minor misdemeanor such as driving without a license (a virtual necessity since a 2005 change in the law made it impossible for undocumented people in most states to obtain a driver’s license). People who are legally in the US but who have criminal convictions are in the majority of cases subject to deportation, and to detention while their cases are proceeding in immigration court.
However they have come to be in detention, immigration detainees are not statistics or archetypes, but people first. Many have US citizen and legal immigrant spouses, children, parents, siblings, and other family and friends they will be forced to leave behind if deported (and once deported, many will never again be legally permitted to enter the US). Many worry desperately for the welfare of families who, wherever they are, depended upon them financially and emotionally. Each detainee suffers in ways that not even long-term criminal inmates do: immigration detainees endure the anxiety that comes from not knowing how long incarceration will last, and benefit from lesser legal protections, in-prison programming and resources than people serving criminal sentences.
For more background information on the immigration detention system, see the Detention Watch Network and the International Detention Coalition.
One of the most important things we can do as concerned community members to assist immigrants in detention, especially those with no friends or family nearby to visit them, is to simply be a friend. Friendship that affirms humanity in the midst of a dehumanizing scenario and provides emotional support is one of detained immigrants' greatest needs. We match volunteers with people in detention who have requested visits, and facilitate in-person social visits to detention centers. Volunteers do not have any assignments or agenda: they simply sit and talk with detainees as any friend would.
According to Jack Gibbs, author of “Four Problem Areas of Pre-Trial Detention,” “the rapid transition to detention is deeply unsettling. It can result in confusion, distortions of reality, withdrawal, apathy, and ultimately, psychological breakdown.” A friendly visitor can help someone facing this scenario with the stress and isolation of detention, and be a link to the “outside.” A visitor’s presence ensures the person who is detained that he or she is not forgotten. Gibbs also noted that, “support in the community may be a ‘stability zone’ which softens the psychological impact of confinement.”
In addition to the psychological impact of detention, many detained immigrants have previously experienced psychologically stressful conditions, and may be recovering from torture, human trafficking, and other instances of trauma. Under these circumstances, it is extremely important for individuals to have a positive person in their lives and to establish a meaningful relationship in the absence of support when friends and family cannot visit.
“Surveys typically show that boredom is one of the most common and damaging problems in detention. Unable to alleviate tension, trauma, and anxiety through activity, the [detained immigrant’s] boredom may reinforce these feelings,” Gibbs said. Visits give individuals in detention a break from the boredom and serve to boost their morale and help them refocus their emotions on positive relationships.
In addition to providing compassion, an open mind, and willingness to listen, visiting immigrants in detention is also a great benefit to visitors. Through this experience, visitors develop a deeper sense of the struggles that others face and witness the powerful role that they may have in creating change for one person and the world around them with a simple smile, interest, and conversation.
Please contact Erin Hustings ehustings [at] hotmail.com or Aurora Ramos-Castillo aurora.ramoscastillo [at] gmail.com