When I Was In Prison You Visited Me
Souls Offering Loving and Compassionate Ears (SOLACE) is a new San Diego interfaith project that provides visitors for people held in immigrant detention. Approved by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), SOLACE began visiting immigrant detainees in San Diego last September.
Visits are conducted across a large glass window, talking on telephone handsets at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which houses approximately 650 immigrants.
Over a year, the facility will house about 9,000 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.
Volunteers spend time with 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 are confined for months and years.
Others immigrants have worked for ten 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 Saturdays and drive 30 to 50 minutes to reach a prison-like facility near the U.S.-Mexico border by 8 a.m.
“Although Solace is an interfaith project, we don’t proselytize or evangelize,” said Hilliard Harper, member of All Souls’, Point Loma and 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. Besides ending immigrants’ isolation from the outside world, we hope our visits help affirm their humanity and restore their hope.”
Visitors provide a witness to the realities of immigrant detention; by their presence they help ensure that expected detention norms are met. Immigrants in detention are held for violating immigration laws, which is a civil violation, not a crime. Yet while in civil confinement, they wear prison-like uniforms as if they were in criminal custody. They do not have the safeguards of the U.S. criminal justice system. Under the law, people in detention are in a legal twilight zone with no lawful right to a court-appointed attorney, a free phone call, or visits by family members.
The visitations are a win-win-win situation, Harper says: 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 visitors’ lives. +