By Soledad Vidal

This past Sunday, September 27, 2015, Pope Francis took time out of his 6-day, super-packed trip to meet with inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. His gentle disposition and touching message inspired me profoundly. Pope Francis told the inmates that he was visiting them “as a brother, to share with them, and to make their cases his own.” When it comes to the human experience, he told them, “all of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity.”

Following his speech, he shook the hands of every inmate in attendance. A number of them hugged him. As he made his rounds, he paused to listen to those who held his hand for a little longer. He ended his visit by blessing their rosaries, and thanking them for the special chair the inmates had made. A big fan of Pope Francis (I’m Argentinean, and one of those “progressive,” Catholics), I watched every hour of “el Papa’s” historic visit to the U.S. None moved me more than his time with the inmates in Philadelphia.

The topic of jail visitations is close to my heart. I am a volunteer with a heroic group, Friends of Orange County Detainees. The mission of the group is to help end the isolation of immigrants in detention; the purpose of the visits is to show detainees that someone on the outside cares. Although most of the people we visit end up being deported, the visits help them to cope as they wait to find out their fate.

Immigrants in detention get extremely bored. They are unable to take classes, or work, and some get no visitors at all, especially if their family members live far, have no transportation, or have to work multiple jobs. This is also true, if they have no local families, or have young children who cannot travel to see them.

I joined the group two years ago, and the experience has been life-changing. Visiting people in detention has allowed me to see the world through another’s eyes. It has also placed a face with a myriad of social problems ranging from drug addiction, poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity. It has grown my heart and empathy, and has developed a deeper appreciation for all the blessings in my life. It has moved me to care, to advocate, and to want to do more.

Over the last years, I visited three women consistently until their release. I also met two others who had regular visitors, and I recently started visiting a new detainee. The weekly conversations have taught me invaluable life lessons. Among them, to give–within boundaries–and to know the difference between what I can and cannot change.

Below are some of the many lessons I have learned.

You are Stronger Than You Think:

I stumbled upon this volunteering opportunity, as I walked through a student fair at Soka University, where I was teaching at the time. As I walked around leisurely, a special table caught my eye; a friendly student awaited visitors to ask him questions. He was surrounded by books on immigration, and flyers from Friends of OC Detainees were spread over the table. I was so intrigued. I pulled up a chair, sat down and had so many questions…..How did a young man get involved in such a cause? Was it difficult? Intimidating? Was it worthwhile? I grabbed the flyer, took it with me, and thought about it for a few weeks before deciding to act.

As I contemplated doing jail visitations, a number of fears kept creeping up– How will this affect me? My feelings? My mood? My safety? My personal time? I was afraid of feeling sadness and taking home other people’s hopeless stories. I did at first, but got better with time.

I remember the first day I went to the jail. Sitting in the parking lot with the engine running, I wondered if I should walk through the metal detector and commit, or turn around and find an easier cause to support. After thinking about it, I turned off the engine, grabbed my keys and ID, and headed to the barbed wire fence. I was in.

A Visit and a Smile Can Go a Long Way:

A 30-minute visit with a detainee will not speed immigration reform, or solve their legal or life challenges. But what a conversation will do is make them feel cared for. Someone has taken the time to visit with them and to listen. Your conversation may be what gets them through the next week, and you will have definitely made their day.

Listen More, Talk Less:

You don’t have to give advice, or talk about yourself (unless they ask and you feel like sharing). Sometimes listening is enough. Last week, I met a new detainee for the first time. After I briefly introduced myself, she started smiling and crying all at once while excusing herself for the outburst. Gracias por venir!, Thank you for coming, she told me. For the next 30 minutes, she shared her story. She told me she was from a little village in Peru. We were happy to learn that we were “neighbors,” South American neighbors. Sometimes, it’s the little things.

Judge Less, Love More

It’s not about what people have done, or whether or not what they tell you is true. It’s about giving a human being a chance for catharsis, for sharing whatever is on their heart. This lesson wasn’t the easiest to learn. I remember visiting my first detainee, and later walking toward my car, thinking deeply about her hardships. On consecutive visits, sometimes her stories of what had happened to her changed. I remember feeling confused and even hurt. What really did happen? As I continued to visit her and others, I made the realization that the veracity of hardships and omission of events were not the point. Who was I to judge? Would I trust a complete stranger with all of my truths? The point, I told myself, is to offer unconditional love without judgment. Whether they made mistakes, or mistakes happened to them, my role as a visitor is to bring a smile and a friendly ear, not to check facts or wonder why people have made the choices they have. This was a freeing realization. All I had to do was be there.

Boundaries- They keep you sane, and allow you to keep giving without losing yourself.

This was probably the hardest lesson for me to learn. When I first started visiting I wanted to “save” everyone, including their extended families and those who assumed childcare duties when the detainees were sent to jail. Soon after I went into superwoman mode, I realized that more, did not mean better. When I was trying to juggle multiple visits and keep up with all of their families, I felt overwhelmed. My intentions were good, but my abilities were limited. I wanted to help everyone, especially the teenage youth who lost their mothers to detention. I made phone calls and checked on kids, called comadres, drove to LA and back, called lawyers, and wrote to judges. None of this is expected of a volunteer, but I found myself unable to draw the line. The result was burnout, and pulling back. The realization here for me was that visiting one person at a time was probably best. Drawing the line in terms of what I could and could not give would be very important to the longevity of this mission. If I wanted to volunteer for years to come, I would have to grow some boundaries as I continued to give.

Detention Hurts Children Deeply:

One of the hardest things about visiting detainees, is learning about the hardships experienced by their children. Immigrants who are detained do not get an opportunity to put their affairs in order, and that includes the most important one: Who will take care of the children, make sure they go to school, eat, shower, and comfort them from the emotionally-wrenching experience of having their mother taken, often times, in front of their eyes? All the detainees I visited are mothers. One of them, had 8 children by the age of 35. The little ones ranged from the age of 4, all the way to their teens. Due to her detention, dad was left to care for all 8 of them overnight. Struggling to survive, he relied on neighbors to help. Shortly after she was detained, her children started “acting up” and missing school. They needed so many things, food, clothing, love. It is difficult to hear stories such as this. It makes one want to box everything you have and send it to the children. I was keeping up with this family for a while by calling different cell phones. But one by one, each was disconnected. I do not know what happened to this family, and this is hard to deal with.

Undocumented immigrants are perceived as a charge to society. But, what happens when you suddenly remove 8 American children’s mother-their main provider-and incarcerate her due to her immigration status? Someone, (Uncle Sam) will have to support them. They will have material needs, but also, costly emotional and educational ones that will affect, not only them, but society as a whole.

Poor, emotionally traumatized children, don’t dream of going to school and becoming somebody. They are likely to drop out and turn to crime.

People Surprise You–Creative Giving and Making Gifts out of Nothing

After visiting detainees I always feel a blend of melancholy and happiness. I feel needed and happy, because I helped someone. I feel melancholic because I wish I could do more. Some of the sweetest moments have involved gifts I have received from detainees. These come in the form of drawings, sweet prayers, stories, profound expressions of gratitude, drafts of flowers and faces. I cannot explain the joy of opening the mail and finding such sweet and thoughtful treasures. The biggest gift of all is their smile when they see you come in. That is priceless.

My heart has also been moved by the way women in detention build community and celebrate special events, like birthdays. One of the detainees I visited told me that on her birthday the girls had “thrown her a party.” Knowing that their access to items is limited, I asked, how? She told me that some of them had money in their accounts usually used to buy small food items since many get hungry by 8pm. That day, they used the few dollars they had to purchase ramen soups, combined the packages by mixing them inside a trash bag they had rescued from yard duty, (and thoroughly washed), and made “Chinese dinner.” This was followed by “birthday cake,” which was made out of peanut butter/jelly sandwiches saved from lunch, and decorated with Oreo cookie crumbles and coffee grains. The girls brought out the birthday girl’s family photos, and placed them around the cake. They also decorated her bed with birthday strings made out of old magazine pages. As a gift, the “stylist,” a detainee who is good at braiding hair, fixed her hair in a special way.

The story of this birthday celebration was incredible to me. I found it so creative, thoughtful and sweet; a reminder that individual lives matter, and people can make community and show support under the direst of circumstances.

To read more about Soledad, check out her blog:

CIVIC is Protecting the Right to Visit & Speak Out Against Detention

Today, CIVIC with the support of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the pro bono support of the law firm Sidley Austin LLP sent two letters requesting that ICE stop retaliating against visitors who publicly criticize the U.S. immigration detention system.  Specifically, we are asking ICE to clarify its nationwide policies to reflect that visitors cannot be denied access in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights, such as by exposing abuse in facilities, speaking out against the system, or participating in protests outside the facility.

Today, we are honored to have the support of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who is standing with us behind the Etowah Visitation Project (EVP).  EVP was recently informed by the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department that their visitation program has been terminated.

Here is the letter and press release that CIVIC and the Southern Poverty Law Center sent to the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department, DHS, and press today, demanding the reinstatement of EVP.

The Etowah County Sheriff’s Department has given us no information as to why this action was taken.  We believe it is in retaliation for a complaint CIVIC filed, with full support from EVP, regarding abuses that have been ongoing against people detained by ICE at the Etowah County Detention Center.  

Also, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Sidley Austin sent a separate letter and press release today outlining how CIVIC’s Co-Executive Director Christina Fialho has been denied attorney visits at the Adelanto Detention Center after attending peaceful vigils there.  

A huge thanks to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Sidley Austin who believe visitors have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly without having to fear retaliation from ICE or its contractors. 

We ask all of you to hold the men detained at Etowah and people detained all over the country in your hearts, as any attack against us as advocates is only an extension of a much more serious attack and attempt to isolate people in detention.

Check out recent articles on this issue:

Think Progress, the Associated Press, Victor Valley Daily Press, Gadsden Times, and La Opinion, and Alabama Public Radio.  Stay tuned for upcoming articles and watch us on CNN en Español (upcoming).

“Free Adelanto 4” Announces Successful Release of Carlos Hidalgo

For Immediate Release
July 13, 2015
Contacts: Olga Tomchin,, 402.650.2339 // Christina Fialho (for interviews with Carlos Hidalgo),, 385.212.4842

“Free Adelanto 4” Announces Successful Release of Carlos Hidalgo, Pledges Continued Fight Against Detention of People with Disabilities & Vulnerable Groups

Campaign Continues for Vulnerable Individuals Still Detained at Adelanto, Calls to Prevent Transfer of Transgender Women

Santa Ana, CA—One week after the launch of the campaign, Adelanto 4 member and human rights advocate Carlos Hidalgo (A#092-952-155) was released from the Theo Lacy detention center in Orange County, CA where he had been transferred by ICE as retaliation for his advocacy on behalf of individuals with disabilities and asylum seekers detained at the for-profit Adelanto detention center.

Mr. Hidalgo, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was targeted for helping people file grievances for medical abuse and alerting them of their rights. In response, ICE threw him into solitary confinement for over 3 days and then transferred him to a different detention facility because “GEO Group doesn’t want you here.”

On three occasions and under increasingly mysterious circumstances, ICE prevented Mr. Hidalgo from having a court hearing, resulting in him missing his U.S. citizen daughter Lovette’s high school graduation. Today, Carlos has been reunited with her, his other two U.S. citizen children, and his parents and grandchild. He can now also continue receiving treatment for his multiple sclerosis.

Upon his release, Carlos Hidalgo made the following statement:

“Thank you to everyone who signed the Adelanto 4 petition and to all who are supporting our cause. Because of you, I am now reunited with my beloved family! I’ve been given the chance to continue this fight from the outside and help all those who are still in detention. I have the moral obligation to help those still in need that are living under this unjust deportation and immigration detention system that is affecting so many of us immigrants. With your help, I promise to continue this fight to the end immigration detention and help all of my brothers and sisters who are still being detained.

“Regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, we are all human beings who deserve to be able to pursue happiness and live our dreams. The tears of the detained must not be in vain. For-profit prison companies such as GEO Group need to be held accountable for their actions and must not be allowed to abuse people with disabilities and transgender people. I personally witnessed the total lack of proper medical care for those with mental health issues and dialysis patients. Let’s keep up the fight and be heard with dignity and respect!”

The “Free Adelanto 4” campaign continues for the remaining Adelanto 3 and others with disabilities and asylum seekers and has called on ICE to stop the transfer of transgender women to the abusive facility.

Undocumented trans woman activist Jennicet Gutiérrez who made headlines recently for demanding to President Obama that he stop the abuse of trans women by ICE added,

“Trans women in detention centers should not be transferred to Adelanto because the abuse won’t stop with the transfer. Adelanto is a remote location where it would be more difficult for our sisters to get our support and legal representation.”

GEO Group, the infamous for-profit prison company which runs Adelanto, is currently being sued by current and former detained immigrants for violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The lawsuit alleges that GEO is subjecting immigrant detainees to forced labor under threat of solitary confinement, which is recognized as torture by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Additionally, the Free Adelanto campaign has launched a fundraiser for the bond of Adelanto 4 member Victor Calderon (A# 206-412-111). He is a 32 year old father of three U.S. citizen children and the son and caretaker of a disabled green card holder mother. Victor has lived in the United States since he was 6.

The petition for the remaining Adelanto 3 can be found here:

VICTORY: After a Month of Resistance, Kwesi Amuzu has been Released

May 27, 2015 – We resisted and won! After a month of campaigning, ICE SF Field Office has decided to release Kwesi Amuzu, a Ghanaian asylum-seeker, who was held in indefinite detention for over a year despite having a removal order that was unable to be carried out. We first met Kwesi at the West County Detention Facility through our visitation program. He was transferred to the Mesa Verde Detention Facility, but our growing network of visitor volunteers was able to support him and continue to visit him at this new California facility. CIVIC sounded the alarm about his indefinite detention and engaged a multi-racial network of undocumented youth, faith leaders, immigrant rights organizations, and community members to pressure ICE for Kwesi’s release.

A vigil and protest was scheduled outside of the Mesa Verde facility on May 30th with the purpose of calling for Kwesi’s release. Kwesi was released on May 26, 2015. He is now living with a CIVIC visitor volunteer. He was able to join us outside of the detention facility on May 30th with hundreds of people calling for the release of all people from immigration detention.

Listen to Kwesi here:

Community Group Expanding their Outreach to Immigrants at Krome

Volunteers from Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees (FOMDD) have made over 800 visits and received thousands of calls through a hotline system to provide a free connection to the outside world for people in immigration detention at the Krome Service Processing Center; this year, they are looking to engage more members of the community!

CONTACT: Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees
Phone: 786-766-8659

Community Group Expanding their Outreach to Krome Detainees

Miami, FL. Every week, volunteers from Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees (FOMDD) take the long ride out west to the Krome Service Processing Center (better known as the Krome Detention Center) to spend time with some of the hundreds of immigrants confined there. The visitors, coming from diverse backgrounds and communities throughout South Florida, are hoping to expand the program this year by increasing visits and phone communication.

While some faith groups perform services at Krome, FOMDD is the only organization whose members simply go listen to the men detained there. They have made over 800 visits since the program’s inception in 2014. The visitations are sponsored by the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Miami and affiliated with Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants In Confinement (CIVIC), a national advocacy organization for people in immigration detention and visitor volunteers.

“The idea of these programs is to end the isolation of people in immigration detention through community visitation,” states Christina Fialho, co-founder and Executive Director of CIVIC. “Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees is offering a much-needed connection to the outside world for people detained at Krome.”

FOMDD is trying to bring humane relief to a vulnerable population that is experiencing the consequences of a broader problem. The United States maintains the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world: its detention system holds hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year, some of them for long periods of time. Without a right to a free attorney or phone calls home, people have little connection to the outside to share their experience, connect with their families or report possible abuses.

The FOMDD program offers two types of volunteering opportunities: people can become hotline advocates or visitor volunteers at the Krome Detention Center. Answering the hotline is a very flexible way to help; it can be done from home according to your schedule.

Members of FOMDD volunteer for many reasons. According to Bud Conlin of Key Largo, coordinator of the group, “We visit to let the men in confinement know they are not alone, that people outside know and care about them. We work to end their isolation and inform the community of their situation.” Linda Guerrera of Port St. Lucie is thankful for the opportunity “to show people kindness, humanity and love in a time during their lives when they find themselves in a veritable emotional desert.”

Lidia Moore of Miami, one of the earliest visitors, has seen that “locking people up because they are immigrants is destroying lives and families.” “Some of the detainees have no relatives near here,” says Barbara Woshinsky of Miami, “or else they don’t want their mothers, wives or children to see them from behind a glass wall, where they can’t touch them. Listening to their stories can be draining, but the men are so grateful. It is very humbling.”

For Bill Turner of Miami, it is a question of justice. “People are being criminalized and incarcerated, losing their civil and human rights.” He wants the detainees to know that he is sympathetic to their situation and supports our immigration policies being changed.

Every week, the visitors hear gripping stories (names and identifying details have been changed to preserve privacy). Carlos, an electrician from Colombia, wound up in Krome after a wrongful arrest. Released on bail, he was brought back there two years later. He has lived in this country for 20 years and has a wife and two children who are citizens. He is appealing his deportation decree.

Occasionally there is a happy outcome. Hamid, a Middle Eastern asylum seeker, was released recently from Krome detention. He had seen nothing of America outside its detention centers since he was arrested at the border 15 months ago. He has a daughter back home who was born after he fled his country.

The FOMDD program has come a long way in a few short years. “It was a challenge getting permission to visit,” says Conlin. “With the help of (the national visitation program) CIVIC, in 2013 we were able to file a formal application to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”

In a letter supporting its application to ICE, former Florida Congressman Joe Garcia wrote: “This group of dedicated individuals desires to end the isolation of those being held in immigration confinement. It is my hope that this initiative will bring aid and comfort to those in detention while work continues on immigration reform.”

The FOMDD proposal was formally accepted in August 2013, but volunteers did not receive permission to visit until February 2014. Two months later, with the support of Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church of Texas, FOMDD started a telephone hotline that has reached thousands of detainees, some of whom cannot afford the 12 cents per minute it costs for a local call.

To receive more information about FOMDD or to join their Visitor or Hotline Advocate programs, please visit their website at

Like them on Facebook at

Or contact them by Email at

ACLU, CIVIC, & Others: ICE Stop Expanding Adelanto

Today, we filed a letter with ICE, CRCL, and OIG calling for a stop to the Adelanto Detention expansion and an investigation into the chronic medical problems at this GEO-run facility. Read it here:

Posted by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) on Friday, May 15, 2015