From Left: Sylvester Owino, singer Miguel, and Christina Fialho at the concert in Adelanto.
A few weeks ago, I experienced one of the most powerful nights of my life. I am the co-founder and co-executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), where I work with an amazing team committed to abolishing U.S. immigrant prisons.
First, a little background. Immigrants often come to the United States seeking a better life. They’re fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution. And what happens when they arrive? They’re picked up and detained. They get no court-appointed attorney, no free phone call, and no legally protected right to visitation. Worse than that, immigrants who are detained become vulnerable to abuse in a network of over 200 county jails and for-profit prisons.
That brings me to our experience Friday night, October 20th, in Adelanto, California. This rural desert town is home to the largest adult-only immigrant prison in the country. I participated in a news conference outside the prison to urge the media – and anyone else talking about these places – to start calling them what they are: prisons and jails. Often, you’ll read about them in the press and they’re referred to as “immigrant detention centers.” But that doesn’t paint an accurate portrayal of these places. These facilities look like prisons. And prison companies either run them or they are literally county jails contracting with the federal government. It is time to be honest and accurate about these places.
Two immigrants, Sylvester Owino and Carlos Hidalgo, who spoke so powerfully about their own horrible experiences inside immigrant prisons, joined me at the news conference. Sylvester, who was incarcerated in immigrant prison for 9 years and 4 months, is the owner of Rafikiz Foods in San Diego and a powerful champion of immigrant rights. He is currently challenging forced labor practices in immigrant prisons as the main plaintiff in a class action lawsuit. Carlos, who is a manager of a local restaurant chain, was detained at Adelanto twice. We believe he was re-detained for being such a vocal and effective advocate against the immigrant prison system. I’m honored to call Sylvester and Carlos my friends and to work alongside them in the struggle to end this profit-driven system.
Following the news conference, we made our way down the street from the prison to Adelanto’s community stadium, where we helped put on a free concert and arts festival – open to the public. With more than 1,000 people, we enjoyed an incredible concert by artists who support our work! I’m humbled that Grammy-winning artist Miguel headlined our event, and told the audience he came out to listen, learn, and support our immigrant neighbors. Actresses such as Cristela Alonzo and Diane Guerrero also supported the event.
Diane Guerrero, an actress on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and CW’s Jane the Virgin, sent in a video for the concert where she talked about her own experience with the U.S. deportation system. She said, “I am calling on my colleagues, my neighbors, my friends, my family, anybody, everybody in this country across this country, we can’t create change and end these inhumane practices without you. We need to rise up as one…”
The night was beyond moving for me. It was almost overwhelming to see the momentum of our work in such an incredible and powerful environment. I’m thankful to all of the community partners – particularly the Inland Empire Immigrant Youth Collective and the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice – for collaborating with all of us at CIVIC on such critical work.
And we still have a lot more work to do. Our mission is to shut down immigrant prisons and jails in California and across this nation. Rather than incarcerating immigrants to ensure they show up for their court dates, there are alternative options that are more effective, more humane, and cheaper that include case management and community support.
Up until just about 30 years ago, we didn’t have this massive immigrant prison system, and people awaited the outcome of their cases in their own communities. Even now, poll results show that the majority of Californians favor community alternatives over incarcerating immigrants.
You can help too. Join us in signing our petition asking the media to start referring to “detention centers” as immigrant prisons and immigrant jails. And consider joining CIVIC as volunteer or supporting our mission with a donation.