You may know her as one of the three American hikers detained by the Iranian government as a political hostage from 2009 to 2010. Today, as a bipartisan immigration reform bill heads to the Senate floor, Sarah Shourd is taking a stand for the rights of people detained in her own country. Sarah is the first Ambassador for my organization, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a new national non-profit working to end the isolation and abuse of the over 34,000 men and women held each day in U.S. immigration detention.
"No matter how isolated I was," said Sarah, as she recollects the 410 days she spent in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, Tehran, "even if I didn't get a letter for months at a time--I didn't get a phone call until six months into my detention--I still knew in my heart that I would never be forgotten, and I want everyone in isolation to feel that."
A longtime international solidarity activist, Sarah began visiting people in immigration detention through CIVIC in February. Sarah arrived for her first visit at the James Musick Facility in Orange County, California, on the morning of February 24th. Orange County, which became popularized by television shows such as The Real Housewives of Orange County and The O.C., has a darker side. Behind its mansions and Maseratis, Orange County has three immigration detention facilities, holding approximately 1,000 men and women each day. According to results from a California Public Records Act request filed by CIVIC, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pays Orange County $118 per person per day to detain nearly four hundred men and women at the James Musick Facility.
While waiting in the visitor line, Sarah took off her rings and belt for the metal detector. She showed her identification to the officers of this one hundred acre minimum-security facility, euphemistically called "The Farm." Once inside the jail, she waited in another line to board a bus with volunteers who visit men and women in immigration detention on a weekly basis through CIVIC's affiliated visitation program, Friends of Orange County Detainees. The bus dropped Sarah and the other volunteers off in front of the visitor center. Inside, rows of tables, meant to bring people together, act instead as a divider between visitors and individuals in custody. Officers strictly enforce a no touching or hugging policy, even for children who come to visit their parents.
Sarah recalls visiting Christopher, a young man who grew up in California and attended the high school next to Sarah's high school in Los Angeles. Christopher has been representing himself in his immigration case; despite community support for his release, a judge set his immigration bond at $15,000. His family and friends cannot afford to pay for his release. Languishing in detention, he fears deportation.
"I'm sitting across from Christopher," said Sarah, "and he is 100 percent American. When you actually see that and experience it yourself, you realize just how terrifying it would be as an American to be deported to a country you haven't been to since you were a child and know very little about."
She also met Manuel, an artist and grandfather of a new baby boy. Although Manuel cannot hold his newborn grandson who lives across the country in Massachusetts, Manuel has crafted gifts for his grandchild. In fact, Manuel has become famous among CIVIC visitor volunteers for the beautiful rosaries he creates from discarded plastic lunch bags. He made one for Sarah.
Despite their ties to the United States, Manuel and Christopher have been in immigration detention since last fall. The families of people like Manuel and Christopher are often unable to afford visits because many detention facilities are far away from population centers. In addition, ICE often transfers a person apprehended in one county to a detention facility in another county or even another state. Men and women--young and old--simply disappear into this web of approximately 250 jails and private prisons contracting with ICE to confine people in immigration detention. There is no fixed sentence and no time limit for how long people may remain in civil confinement. Moreover, men and women in detention have no right to a free phone call or a court-appointed attorney.
"I don't think you can underestimate exactly what it means for someone in such a terrifying state of uncertainty to have another human being come and spend some time with them," said Sarah, who is committed to visiting more people in immigration detention as CIVIC's Ambassador.
Unfortunately, visiting someone in immigration detention can be difficult. Although some facilities allow visitation, there is no legally protected right to visitation. Without a right to visitation, the rules of each detention facility dictate the degree of connection that men and women in detention have to the outside world. Some facilities, such as the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, allow only video visitation even when family members and friends are physically present in the facility. Other facilities, such as the Sacramento County Jail, completely eliminate visitation privileges for persons held in solitary confinement.
"It really helps me to be in touch with people who are experiencing something that I myself can relate to," said Sarah, who also works as an advocate with Solitary Watch against the use of prolonged solitary confinement. "CIVIC is bringing kindness and humanity to people that feel forsaken, feel forgotten...I mean it sounds like a simple thing, but it is absolutely transformative when you're in that level of desperation and isolation."
To join Sarah in taking a stand to end the isolation of people in immigration detention, visit CIVIC's website at www.endisolation.org.