By David Bacon
This photoessay appeared originally on Capital & Main.
Paola was standing outside the West County Detention Facility, a prison in Richmond, California for 150 to 300 people awaiting deportation, when she got the phone call. She’d been fearing it for days. Florencio, her husband, was in another detention center in Arizona, calling to tell her that la migra (immigration agents) had caught him in the desert, walking north with a dozen others.
Paola (not her real name) hadn’t spoken to Florencio for several weeks, not since the day before he crawled into the luggage compartment of a bus in Puebla in southern Mexico. The bus, he hoped, would take him close to the US border.
It had already been a harrowing journey for himself and Paola’s brother Lorenzo. “After we left Guatemala and crossed the river into Mexico, we wound up in a kind of camp in Chiapas,” Florencio recalls. “There were hundreds of people there.” When the day to leave on the long trip north finally arrived, the coyotes running the camp organized a kind of shape up. It was not that different from the stories told by an earlier generation of migrants, the braceros (contract farm laborers), who remember being herded together at Mexican way stations, inspected and shipped to the border between 1942 and 1964.
“Different coyotes called us by numbers, separating us into groups,” Florencio says. “Then they put eighty or ninety of us into the back of a truck. There was so little space we had to stand pushed up against each other like sardines. It was a bumpy ride, and soon people began to get sick and faint, especially the pregnant women. They stopped the truck and gave us pills and lemons, but people were already throwing up and the smell was terrible.”
The ride resumed, but after twelve hours the people inside began to bang on the walls. Hearing the noise, the driver pulled over. “He let us out and told us to run around a little,” Florencio says. “Then we got back in, and it was another twelve hours.” When the truck got to Puebla, Florencio called Paola to tell her he was coming.
He got through the next stage from Puebla hidden in the luggage compartment of a bus. That took him to Sonora. There, in a house near the border, the group faced another obstacle. “The mafia guys came and told us they controlled this territory, and we had to pay another $1,000 to get to the line to cross,” Florencio says. “Some of us knew this would happen, and we’d already paid the coyote. I don’t know what happened to the others. Soldiers came, but they didn’t see any problems, and let us keep moving.”
Not having money to pay at this stage could have been fatal. In the last decade, mass graves of migrants have been discovered across the desert of Mexico’s northern states. Many guess that these were migrants too broke to pay the toll. Perhaps others were robbed and then killed.
For Florencio’s group, actually crossing the line wasn’t the big problem. It was getting to a place north of it, where they could get picked up by a van to take them to Phoenix. To get to the meeting place, they had to walk three days in the heat through rocks, sand and sagebrush. “On the third day, one boy from my hometown got pains in his stomach, and began fainting,” Florencio says. “At first, I said we had to stay with him, but the coyote said we had to leave him and that the Border Patrol would find him. If we stayed we’d all be caught.”
In the end, that’s what happened anyway. The group passed across a freeway, but then Florencio began hearing helicopters. They all ran. He tried hiding under a bush, but an agent on a motorcycle found him. He was taken to a detention center close by. When he called Paola, it was the day of the monthly vigil in front of the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, nearly 900 miles north.
“I was there with people from the church who were helping us,” Paola remembers. “We’d been praying for people they knew who were inside, and we began singing. Then my cell phone rang. I was so afraid of getting that call, but I knew what it would be. Then they were praying for me.” She collapsed into the arms of a church member next to her, both of them weeping.
At the end of the detention center vigil, the people assembled there clap, shout and make enough noise that the detainees inside can hear them. “We want them to know we’re here, that someone knows they’re inside, and that our community cares what happens to them,” explains Reverend Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (IM4HI). “When we started in 2011, our idea was to put out a call to people of faith and conscience concerned about what was happening to immigrants, to bear witness and provide a way for them to act on that concern.”
As the years have gone by, the vigils have changed. At first, they were made up mostly of congregations from progressive, middle-class churches. Then some of those churches went from hosting vigils to providing sanctuary to migrant families threatened with deportation. Churches have raised funds for bonds and emergency support, found housing and rides for released detainees, and accompanied newcomer families. “Accompaniment,” a term used by faith and solidarity activists, came out of efforts to protect activists in El Salvador from the death squads in the 80s. People show their solidarity with those who are in danger by accompanying them, physically or by helping them survive. Today, it’s applied to migrants as well—activists support a family by giving them sanctuary, helping them find food and shelter, getting them legal help.
As sanctuary congregations have multiplied to thirty-two throughout the Bay Area, migrants themselves have increasingly participated in the vigils. “We always include testimony from directly impacted families as well as a call to action,” Lee adds. “We started very small–fifteen to twenty–and now it’s averaging 100 people.”
Berkeley’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church helped Paola and her mother, who fled violence in Guatemala in 2014, gain refugee status. The family then came to the vigil at the West County Detention Facility to speak out. “Because these families are with us, they provide a first-hand account of why they were forced to leave home,” Lee said at the vigil, urging other congregations to get involved. “We hear the pain of the separation of their families in their voices and see it in their eyes.”
St. John’s was one of the first churches to give sanctuary to immigrants. “In the early 1980s, we saw people fleeing the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and felt we had to do something to help them,” says Fred Goff, a member of the congregation who brought Teresa and Paola to the vigil.
The vigils have grown to involve more than people of faith. Some have been organized by immigrant community organizations, like Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which organizes immigrant working women in San Francisco and the East Bay. Local high schools and colleges have organized others, and a Jewish congregation, Kehilla Community Synagogue, has started its own vigil on second Sundays. When workers at a local foundry were fired for not having immigration papers, Lee and the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition began meeting with them in the Lutheran Church near the University of California, Berkeley campus, working with a labor/community coalition called the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE). A few workers came to a vigil, and people of faith helped organize a community march and hunger strike to protest anti-immigrant firings.
After hearing from people like Teresa and Paola, Rev. Lee and IM4HI began holding meetings throughout the Bay Area to talk about the reasons for forced displacement and migration, and for the growth of the detention and deportation industry. For two years, she’s organized delegations to Central America together with La Fundación SHARE, to support social justice movements there, and to give congregations in California a first-hand experience of the reasons why people leave home.
Over many Saturdays, the vigils have provided a way for activists to reach out to people inside the center as well. On a recent Saturday, Lourdes Barraza and her daughters Sofia, Isabel, and Anna, waited to hear news of Fernando, her husband and the girls’ father. The following Tuesday would be Fernando’s birthday, and he’d already spent three months inside, staring at the concrete walls of his cell.
Reverend Pablo Morataya gathered members of his congregation at the First Hispanic Presbyterian Church in east Oakland, a sanctuary congregation, as well as other pastors and lay ministers serving immigrant congregations throughout the Bay Area. They went to the detention center to hold a vigil for Fernando. “There are risks,” Pastor Morataya says, “but for us it is a calling of our faith.”
At the vigil for Fernando, one of Lourdes’ daughters had written birthday greetings on a large card, and placed it on an overturned milk crate covered with a cloth. First one boy stepped forward and signed it. Then two older congregants did the same. Finally a line stretched out of people adding their names and greetings.
Despite the support and greetings for Lourdes and her daughters, it was still an awful experience to think of Fernando inside. They’d tried to arrange bail for him so that he would be able to come home. “But they told me he didn’t qualify because he’d already been deported once,” Lourdes explained. “He’s been living in this country for many years. He is not a threat to society. All he does is work, and all I do is work, too. I don’t know how we’ll survive without him. I need my husband and the girls need their father.”
She broke down and began crying.
In October, Fernando was dropping off the youngest of their three daughters at her daycare center in San Jose. As he pulled away from the curb, he saw he was being followed by the vehicles that figure in the nightmares of millions of immigrants–the green cars of la migra.
He must have wondered whether he could run for it, and what that might mean for his family. He decided instead to pull into a shopping mall parking lot. The ICE agents jumped out of their cars, put him in cuffs, and took him to a detention center. When he was finally able to call his home, all he could do was leave a message: “Don’t worry. I am not going to get deported right away; just stay calm.”
Quick deportation was indeed a big danger. Fernando had been deported in 2012, Lourdes recalled. He was picked up on a Friday and in Tijuana by the following Sunday. But he came back because she was here. His family, his life—all were in San Jose, not Tijuana. Like Paola and Florencio, the bonds of love and life would not and could not be denied.
To ICE, however, being deported once before makes you a criminal subject to jail and to their euphemism for deportation–“removal.” Since October, Fernando has been imprisoned in the West County Detention Facility, nearly 60 miles from San Jose. When he appealed to be released on bail, ICE field director David Jennings refused.
“I could not believe it was all happening again,” Lourdes told Cindy Knoebell, a volunteer for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). “I told our daughters that their father had been detained and they completely broke down sobbing. My oldest is now on an independent study program because she can barely get out of bed in the morning. It is tough because I am alone now and have to take care of my daughters’ needs without any help. I am completely consumed by fear and anxiety. I worry constantly about how long I’ll be able to keep a roof over our heads.”
Knoebell reports that Lourdes debated for a long time whether to come to the vigil and speak. She’d heard about many other families facing the same disaster. “But we have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.
Inside the detention center, the monthly noise has not only let Fernando know there are supporters outside. It has also encouraged detainees to begin protesting what they say are terrible conditions.
The West County Detention Facility is housed in a much larger jail, one of four Contra Costa County lockups. Its official capacity is 1,096 people, of whom 150 to 300 are detainees in the facility run by ICE, which pays $6 million a year to the county for using it. Some immigration detainees are held because ICE says they’re in the country illegally. Others are asylum seekers who are detained immediately on arrival in the US or legal residents with past offenses (often very minor ones) that makes them deportable.
So they await a hearing before an immigration judge. That hearing, however, is not the normal courtroom procedure one might imagine. The judge sits in a room in the ICE building on Sansome Street in San Francisco. The immigrant sits in a room at the detention center in Richmond. The hearing takes place over the Internet. If immigrants have a lawyer, their chances of staying in the US are better, but odds are not good even then.
People like Fernando wait, while weeks stretch into months and even years.
In October, the immigration detainees went public about what that waiting is like. In a letter written to CIVIC by one of the prisoners, Nancy Meyer, and signed by twenty-seven others, women described being held in cells for twenty-three hours a day. While regular inmates in the county jail section of the facility get classes and other resources, the immigration detainees don’t.
The cells are grouped in pods, with a bathroom that is supposed to serve them all. There are no toilets in the cells. If the cell door is locked, a prisoner has to ask to be let out in order to go to the bathroom. While Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston says doors are normally open, the women signing the letter denied this. Instead, they charged, they’re told to “hold it” and have to urinate or defecate into plastic bags.
One detainee told immigration Judge Joseph Park in October that she that she preferred being deported to staying in the jail. In a phone interview with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Otis R. Taylor, Dianny Patricia Menendez said detainees put the plastic bags over a trash can in order to go to the bathroom. Their one hour of free time to make calls to family or take a shower is often canceled, she added.
ICE did not respond to the allegations of bad conditions. However, Taylor wrote that the detainees who spoke with him were later punished by being denied soap, shampoo and the chance to brush their teeth.
Senator Dianne Feinstein was one of several elected officials to protest. She wrote acting ICE director Thomas Homan in December, saying, “It has been reported that the conditions are so deplorable that detainees are requesting deportation over pursuing claims in immigration court.” Criticism also came from U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Richmond), State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and Richmond Mayor Tom Butt.
Outside the West County jail, a few minutes after Paola got the call from Florencio saying he’d been caught, she got a second one that frightened her even more. Her brother Lorenzo was hiding in a small community between Tucson and the border. He’d been traveling with Florencio, but the coyotes separated them in northern Sonora.
Once across the border, Lorenzo lost his own group, and a friendly resident gave him temporary refuge in a garage. Terrified that the Border Patrol, which was constantly circulating in the area, would find him, he called Teresa. At the vigil, church members began making calls to Arizona, trying to find help. Finally a person was contacted who drove down from Tucson and rescued him.
It was only a temporary respite, however. Not long afterwards Lorenzo was picked up and deported. When he calls Teresa and Paola these days, it’s from Guatemala once again.
Since Florencio had tried to cross the border twice before and had been caught, he wasn’t deported immediately when he was picked up in Arizona. Instead, he was charged in the special court for immigrants in Tucson, Operation Streamline. Afterwards he spent seven months in an Arizona prison before finally being released on bail while he appeals his deportation order.
To Rev. Lee, the stories of Florencio, Lorenzo and Fernando, with their repeated attempts to cross the border to reunite with their families, are a natural human response to separation. She cited another example in an opinion piece she cowrote with Bob Lane, a faith leader at EBASE, for the San Jose Mercury News. “Consider the story of Alfonso Martinez Sanchez, a thirty-nine-year-old father of five US citizen children and his family’s main breadwinner, she wrote. “Five years ago, a trip to a store to buy milk led to a senseless deportation. Alfonso repeatedly tried to come home to his family. Wouldn’t you? The Border Patrol arrested Alfonso several times, but he never gave up on his family. He died of heatstroke in the desert trying to reunite.”
When Rev. Lee thinks about what’s happened to Paola and Teresa, to Florencio and Lorenzo, to Lourdes and her three children, to Fernando, it’s clear to her that for them to survive people have to act. “We can’t just watch the immigration policy of this country play itself out and do nothing, while ICE and the Border Patrol hunt people down and tear their families apart,” she said at a recent vigil. “The administration talks about our efforts to protect people and fight this detention system as though this was just a state or a city passing a law to defy their enforcement efforts. What they don’t understand is that these laws exist because our community is making a moral commitment and acting on it, and our representatives are responding to that. Sanctuary isn’t just a law. It’s our community defending people in danger.”
Sanctuary is a vigil in front of the detention center.
About the Author
Award-winning photojournalist, author, and immigrant rights activist David Bacon spent over twenty years as a labor organizer and is the author most recently of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration. Bacon’s previous books include The Children of NAFTA, Communities without Borders, and Illegal People (Beacon, 2008). He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and writes for the Nation, American Prospect, Progressive, and San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @photos4justice.