By Stefany Urrea
I began visiting immigrants detained at Santa Ana Jail in February, before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) canceled its decade-long contract with the city last month. My activist group, Orange County Immigrant Youth United (OCIYU), started collaborating with a new local organization to incorporate a visiting program. Before going to Santa Ana Jail for the first time, one of our organizers briefly explained the process.
Once inside, I met a man from India. He immediately started telling me details about his journey to the United States. I tried to get him to share happier stories from his childhood, or even his last favorite meal, but the conversations always returned to unbearable nostalgia. Who could blame him? The realities of his everyday life in detention were heartbreaking.
The last time I saw my immigrant friend, he told me his mom would no longer take phone calls from him, as they'd only listen to each other cry at a cost of nearly a dollar-per-minute. He constantly mentioned his state of depression and how taking the sleeping pills provided by the jail at night were the highlight of his day. Feeling his body numbing into slumber became a welcomed countdown bringing him one day closer to his day in immigration court.
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I learned this immigrant's tale on the first floor of Santa Ana jail, where the conditions of the visiting booths were deplorable. But they paled in comparison to the confinements he returned to after our visits. Most of his days were spent in lockdown. He described his jail cell as being spacious enough to take all of three steps in pacing back-and-forth “like a captured tiger." As his court date neared, he told me he was thankful because he found a family sponsor. But the newfound optimism proved short-lived; the judge denied bond, saying my immigrant detainee friend crossed too many countries in order to get into the U.S.
The day after being dealt a setback in court proved emotional; He mentioned to me how one of the people he had met on his journey died in the jungles of Panama and how the bond denial made him feel defeated. Many times I saw desperation in his anxious disposition; He wouldn't normally make eye contact for more than a few seconds in previous visits, but that day he stared with a sense of hopelessness into my eyes.
The detainee I got to know is still incarcerated today, awaiting asylum in the best of hopes. My visits to Santa Ana Jail gave me insight into the inhumane conditions of detention centers. Both conservative and liberal politicians and pundits have convinced the public that these facilities are comfortable waiting rooms for court dates. But nothing could be further from the truth. Immigrants come to the U.S. fleeing economic and social distress to only face the trauma of confinement.
Making detention centers “immigrant-friendly” isn't good enough, especially with the notorious Theo Lacy Facility in Orange expanding 120 beds for ICE. My jail visits this year convinced me more than ever that it's imperative to advocate for the release of all immigrants and create programs that will successfully integrate them into society where they belong: not behind bars.