Angela Garcia-Sims and Tom Morelli, are volunteers with SOLACE, a new San Diego interfaith project that provides volunteer visitors in order to end the isolation of people held in immigrant detention. Approved by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, SOLACE began visiting immigrant detainees in San Diego on September 29, 2012.
Garcia-Sims, a SOLACE co-founder and co-leader, and Morelli, who has been a longtime visitor of the incarcerated are among 15 volunteer visitors. SOLACE is an acronym for Souls Offering Loving and Compassionate Ears. As a project with a social justice focus, SOLACE offers immigrants held in detention visitors with a friendly face.
SOLACE visits are conducted in a visiting room across a large glass window, talking on telephone handsets. The site of the visits is the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which houses approximately 650 immigrants on any given day and is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Over a year, the facility will house about 9,000 different immigrants. The vast majority, 74 percent, are Mexican nationals. The remainder come from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Iraq, Ghana, and a host of other countries.
SOLACE volunteers visit primarily those immigrants who have no one to visit them. These immigrants have fled persecution in their countries, traveled thousands of miles seeking asylum, only to be imprisoned. Many of these immigrants in detention, whether from Syria or Somalia, are confined for months and years. Other immigrants have lived and worked for 10 or more years in the U.S. and now face deportation to their birth countries and permanent separation from their families.
SOLACE visitors rise early on their Saturdays and drive 30 to 50 minutes to reach a prison-like facility near the U.S.-Mexico border by 8 a.m. There they are processed through security and will spend time with strangers born in other countries who are held in immigrant detention.
Sponsored by the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, SOLACE grew out of a six-week course on Immigration as a Moral Issue offered by the Organizing for Justice Committee at the church in the winter of 2011. Members from the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholic parishes, the County Bar Assn., Casa Cornelia, and the ACLU helped the project develop.
“Although SOLACE is an interfaith project, we don’t proselytize or evangelize,” said Hilliard Harper, a SOLACE co-founder and co-leader. “A number of the people held in detention are seeking asylum. Some have fled religious persecution in their countries, so it’s not appropriate to try to convert someone to my religion. Some have been held in detention for months, some for years with no family or friends to visit them. We are visitors, someone to talk to. Besides ending immigrants’ isolation from the outside world, we hope our visits help affirm their humanity and restore their hope.”
After approving SOLACE for visitations in September, the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) posted signup sheets in the detention center, and an initial group of 88 immigrants requested visits by SOLACE. With a small but growing group of volunteer visitors, it took SOLACE three months to visit those on its list during normal visiting hours on Saturdays and Sundays. ICE assists SOLACE each week confirming whether the immigrants who are slated for a visit are still held in the detention center. Visits last a minimum of 30 minutes up to one hour.
SOLACE volunteer visitors also provide a witness to the realities of immigrant detention, by their presence helping ensure that expected detention norms are met. While violating immigration laws is a civil violation, not a crime, immigrants in detention wear prison-like uniforms as if they were in criminal custody. They have few of the safeguards of the U.S. criminal justice system, living in a legal twilight zone with no lawful right to a court-appointed attorney, to a free phone call, or to receive visits from friends or family members.
The visitations are a win-win-win situation, Harper said: Visitors help people in detention know they are not forgotten; for ICE the morale of those in detention is raised; and the experience of meeting people in detention, of hearing about the perseverance and resilience of asylum seekers makes a positive difference in the visitors’ lives.
“Our visits with the asylum seekers and immigrants trying to remain in our country have led to profound experiences,” said Garcia-Sims. “We all grow in surprising ways. We learn how to connect with strangers in the cold, dehumanizing visitation rooms. We hear moving stories and realize how lucky we are as Americans and how challenged we are by the way our country treats those who desperately want to be part of our family.”
For more information contact Angela Garcia-Sims at 619-709-2062.