Most people spend their retirements unwinding from the world, but activist Peggy Thompson is as busy as ever trying to change it. A woman of many causes over the decades, humanizing the immigration system one visit at a time has become her passion as a member of Friends of OC Detainees. "When you start to get to this stage in life, for me, it's important that I use these productive years I have left to leave the world a little bit of a better place," she says.
Raised in the Bay Area by Unitarian Universalist parents, Thompson started early in the social-justice game. "I had my first letter to the editor published when I was 6 in the Sacramento Bee protesting the death penalty!" she recalls. Thompson stayed local, attending college at UC Berkeley during the 1960s, when the campus became a lightning rod of student activism.
Thompson got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement—and that meant a whole lot more than marches. She married a draft resister soon after graduating in 1968, and the newlyweds left the United States for Toronto. But seven frosty years north of the border had Thompson clamoring to come back to California. "I wanted to get as far south and warm as possible," Thompson says. "That's how I ended up in Irvine in 1977, and I've been here ever since."
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After retiring at 62 from Xerox, Thompson re-immersed herself in activism after years of volunteering on the side. Friends of OC Detainees formed in 2012 out of Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Mission Viejo that Thompson joined two years later. "The person I visited the first time was a man named Juan Carlos from Honduras," she recalls. "He had been [at the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine] for at least six months, and I was the first person who had ever visited him. He was just so incredibly grateful for the visit." Thompson has kept in touch with Carlos ever since; after he got deported, he crossed again and is now detained in Arizona.
The visits have taught Thompson a thing or two about the immigration system, including how former detainees are often released on the street with no resources. She takes vulnerable transgender immigrant women into her home when she can for short-term and sometimes long-term stays, until they can resettle elsewhere. "The young woman that I have with me right now is from Honduras," Thompson says. "She was being pressured by a gang to sell drugs for them." The impossible situation led her to flee a frayed home for the U.S., but troubles remained back in Honduras. "Shortly after she left, the gang came to her mother's house looking for her," she says. "Her stepfather answered the door, and when he told them she was gone, they shot and killed him."
Friends of OC Detainees has around 50 active members, and last year, it paid 1,250 visits to local detainees—an average of more than three per day, twice what it did in 2014. The group even won a grant and hired an outreach coordinator to help grow the ranks of those who want to form a human bond amidst the isolation of immigrant incarceration.
"I would like nothing more than to see this whole immigration-detention system dismantled," Thompson says. "But as long as immigrants need visitors, I'll be here."