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When returning home is not an option

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Anna Campbell shares with us her recent experience traveling to Seattle and Tacoma where she was able to visit Northwest Detention Center and to meet with recently detained individuals and the organizations that serve them. Anna is National Network Coordinator for Access to Justice, LIRS’s unit that promotes access to the justice system, immigration benefits, and legal protection to immigrants and refugees, with particular attention to the most vulnerable, such as asylum seekers, torture survivors and those in immigration detention.

During my recent trip to the Seattle/Tacoma area, I had the chance to visit a young man, I’ll call him Sam to protect his identity, who is currently detained at Northwest Detention Center. I hope I was able to offer a bit of hope while he battles to be released or possibly deported to a country he hasn’t seen since age four. He is now 20 and came to the United States with his parents and siblings. He knows no other home. If you’d met him on the street and heard his unaccented English, you would have no idea he wasn’t born in the United States. He doesn’t remember anything about his home country. He can understand the country’s official language, but often struggles to express himself in anything other than English. This scares him. He also doesn’t have many friends or family members outside of the United States who could help him if he returns to the place he was born.

His parents have done a great job of integrating their children into U.S. society, yet taught them very little about their country of birth. “What do the streets looks like? Is it easy to find an apartment? Can I take a bus from the airport, if I do get sent back there? Is food affordable? Are there doctors?” These are some of the questions we discussed together. Sam is eager to learn and confident he can make it, yet fearful of the unknown. Who wouldn’t be? I can’t fathom this feeling, the emotional rollercoaster he will be on for the next few weeks.

Also during my trip, I met with an organization called Roundtable which hopes to serve individuals like Sam as they navigate their situation. Roundtable started as a small group of individuals who decided to organize around justice for immigrants and has developed into its own 501c3. Each bi-monthly gathering includes participants from community organization, legal service agencies, groups of faith and others concerned with the way immigrants are treated in this country. In addition, a representative from both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and GEO joins the meeting.

These meetings are professional venues in which advocates have the opportunity to highlight particular areas of concern and speak boldly about the human rights violations occurring in and around the detention center. At the same time, ICE is building relationships with local providers and collaborating with community organizations hoping to positively impact immigrants in some capacity. This is remarkable. I haven’t heard of many groups that are successful in collaborating with both ICE and private prison corporations. Bottom line, the Roundtable is an example of partnership and interdependence. This relationship is one that is often difficult to maintain, yet it has existed for years and has been successful in its mission. That’s not to say it’s easy for anyone involved; however, the groups continue to be dedicated and accountable to one another. We need more of this in the United States.

A few ways the Roundtable is active in serving detained individuals:

  1. immigration detention visitation;
  2. post-release support for migrants as they are released from detention;
  3. education and outreach to others in the area that want to know more about immigration.

I met with and had wonderful conversations with the woman organizing volunteers to visit individuals detained at Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), which is the fourth largest facility housing immigrants in the United States. Right now, it is a small visitation program, but is continuously recruiting more volunteers. Their spirit and energy is anything but small, and their impact on lives nothing less. She matches trained visitors with people in detention who have asked to have a visit. Folks sit in detention, losing courage and faith, and seeing a smiling visitor helps get them through the day, week or years to come. The visitors in Tacoma are also very dedicated to meeting the needs of immigrants being released from the detention center with nowhere to go. Visitors help find immediate housing and arrange for transportation, when needed. A lot of people leaving NWDC have family elsewhere in the country and are looking to reunify, but need a night or two of help before they can buy a bus ticket or do what they need to in order move. Because of their dedication to stand in solidarity with immigrants affected by detention, visitors step in and assist. They search for empty rooms, call their friends and family and don’t stop until each released individual has a place to rest their head. Lastly, the Roundtable group is known throughout the community and is often called upon to present at churches, universities and organizations looking to be more involved with issues pertaining to immigration. They want to help, but need somewhere to get started. They need someone to come explain the real immigration crisis in the United States and how we can each do something to make a positive impact.

Though it was sad and incredibly frustrating to walk away from my visit knowing Sam is scared and sits alone awaiting his day before the judge, I was encouraged by the Roundtable and the huge group of concerned individuals just outside the facility walls working to change the system that puts people in detention in the first place. Reminding myself that any significant and sustainable change takes a LONG time, I have to believe our hard work and advocacy are worth it. It’s worth my time and energy, tears and fears to continue fighting for justice. I also have to believe that although Sam is unlikely to feel the fruits of our labor in the immediate future, he will be okay. I wish I could hold onto something more definite. Sam will eventually find freedom and safety, whether in the United States or elsewhere.

If you’re reading this and would like more information, specific to the Seattle/Tacoma area or other avenues in which you could engage, please contact me at 410-230-2838 or acampbell@lirs.org. I’d love to hear from you!

You can also learn more about Alternatives to Detention at lirs.org/dignity

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