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An American friend: West Contra Costa’s first immigration detainee visitors program

on February 29, 2012

Immigration has become one the most divisive, controversial and compelling topics of our time. It is also one of the most underreported and misunderstood issues in the country. More than half of the Bay Area population is estimated to be foreign-born, according to data by the Census Bureau, which increases the need for more balanced coverage of immigrant communities in our neighborhoods. As this issue takes center stage in the 2012 political arena, we hope that our coverage of immigration, as it intersects with human rights, education and health, will give you a better understanding of this multilayered issue that our nation continues to grapple with.

Crossroads is a multi-part immigration series covering issues in the East Bay.
If you have a suggestion for immigration stories in Oakland or Richmond that you would like to see told. Send suggestions for Oakland to and for Richmond to

An American friend:
West Contra Costa’s first immigration detainee visitors program

In orange jumpsuits, behind bars, immigrants wait at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond to be deported. Detainees of all ages, races and ethnicities are grouped together, for violations of law, under the watch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Through appeals, some will fight to stay in the United States and others will have to make peace with their new fate—removal from the United States and a subsequent return to their countries of origin.

But while they wait, they shouldn’t be isolated—barred off from communication with family, legal help and the support of a community—according to Christina Fialho and Christina Mansfield, the co-founders of Detention Dialogues, a student-led visitation and community awareness program that works to organize volunteers to visit detainees.

Detention Dialogues is the first immigration detention visitation program in California. Each week one of 40 trained volunteers visits detainees, mostly from Central and South America, who are being held at the West County Detention Facility, an adult medium-security jail just off Giant Highway. Detention Dialogues volunteers also visit detainees at the Sacramento County Jail and Yuba County Jail.

Their hope is to bridge the gap of isolation by visiting detainees on a regular basis and supporting them throughout their detention by contacting family members on their behalf, connecting them to attorneys and forging a bond with the outside American world.

It’s devastating to be that alone, Fialho and Mansfield said—not just in the sense of being isolated and locked up, but without family, friends, adequate legal representation and the comfort of a mutual language or community support. “A lot of people who are detained especially in city jails, there is not a lot of understanding about who they are or why they are there,” Mansfield said. “You bring someone in, you put them in a uniform and you place them in jail and they are treated as criminals.”

Creating a sense of understanding about why people are in detention centers is part of their challenge and their mission, Fialho said. “One of the most challenging things (about working in the immigration field) is trying to change the hearts and minds of people about immigration issues because most people are indifferent,” Fialho said. “That’s one reason we wanted to start this, so that we could connect people in the community to immigration detention so that they could learn from these individuals in detention.”

Jackie Shull Gonzalez, an immigration attorney specializing in deportations in the Mission District of San Francisco, said detention centers across the country hold individuals on various charges, everything from visa violations and illegal entry into the country to DUIs and other civil violations.

The West County Detention Facility opened in 1991 and is one of nine facilities in California contracted by ICE to hold detainees. It holds about 1,000 inmates. Of that number, an average of 120 to150 individuals are there under ICE custody and are being processed for removal from the United States based on violations of immigration laws, said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.

Haley said every illegal immigrant held at the detention center is en route to being deported. However, “immigration judges make the final decision on who goes or stays,” she said, as many people will make appeals for their cases to be heard.

When it comes to Detention Dialogues, volunteers like Nick Castro said he sees hope in what they are doing. Castro still remembers his first time volunteering in the detention center, even though it was five months ago. People were lined up on benches across from one another, some yelling to get their point across and others trying to sign. It was loud, hectic and frustrating, Castro said.

While a majority of the detainees in West County Detention Facility are of Hispanic origin, Castro, who is a second generation Mexican, didn’t use his Spanish once during the visit. He met face to face with a Jamaican detainee with a heavy Caribbean accent.

“I could barely understand him and he could barely understand me,” Castro said. Unlike in the movies, there were no phones to pick up for semi-private communication, although, true to cinema portrayal, there were glass barriers about three inches thick. “Even writing down information is very difficult. You’re not allowed to bring anything in; I mean you literally have to empty your pockets,” he said.

The detained man’s family was back East, Castro remembers. They didn’t know he was in Richmond, which is not uncommon, Castro added. “I think that hanging in the balance and that being in limbo creates a lot of the stress they experience,” he said of the detained man’s family.

ICE is not required to keep detainees in the state in which they are apprehended, so detainees are often transferred because of limited bed space to facilities outside of the initial point of arrest. It’s a system put in place to make the best use of resources, said Gonzalez. “Most of our overflow goes to Arizona because it’s cheaper to house detainees there,” she said.

Before the start of Detention Dialogues, both Fialho and Mansfield were actively involved in immigration issues. When they decided to partner up and start the program in August 2010, Fialo was a law student studying immigrant rights at Santa Clara University School of Law. Mansfield was completing a master’s degree in cultural anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

The program took about a year to get off the ground. Initially, there was some push back from ICE, as well as from the detention facility, Fialho said. But in July 2011, an ICE field coordinator met with the two and the program was approved for operation, she added. Since then, both ICE and the detention facility have been cooperative in their efforts, she said.

Fifteen of the 40 trained volunteers are currently in rotation at the WCDF. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least two visits per month, preferably one visit a week, after they undergo a two to three hour training on how to visit with a detainee, Fialho said.

“We got very lucky, our volunteer pool is very diverse,” Fialho said, highlighting that it includes college students and teachers like Castro, as well as faith leaders from various religions. They are also able to match volunteers with detainees who only speak one language whether that is Spanish, Chinese or Farsi.

Volunteer Monica Hernandez visits detainees at the Sacramento County Jail, but she spends the majority of her time working the 24-hour hotline monitored by Detention Dialogues. The number is connected to Google Voice, which assigns a unique number to any phone carrier. Persons in immigration detention also are able to call Detention Dialogues at no cost using a three-digit extension provided to Detention Dialogues through the ICE detainee pro bono telephone system.

“Lately, we’ve been inundated with so many calls,” Hernandez said, an average of 40 to 100 a day. Most are from detainees who want to be connected to an attorney or family, or similarly, from family members who are searching for a detainee.

“Really, it’s just people calling who don’t have any idea how any of this works,” Hernandez said. “One lady called and couldn’t find her brother since last August. I gave her the facility name and the address and she was really grateful.”

In the last ten years immigration sweeps have become more common and widespread. The Obama administration has increased border controls, and has achieved record deportation numbers that surpass those of the Bush administration.

In October, 2011, ICE announced that 396,906 immigrants were deported during the 2011 fiscal year, making it the largest number deported in the agency’s history for that time frame. The numbers, while high, are not significantly greater than the previous year. Approximately 392,000 immigrants were deported 2010.

In 2010 Contra Costa Country deported about 730 immigrants. Of these deportations, only 21 percent (151 individuals) were convicted criminals, making Contra Costa County one of the top 30 counties in the country for the deportation of non-criminals, according to the National Day Labor Organizing Network.

Ultimately, Mansfield said she tries not to dwell on what she calls the “broader bleak picture” that is immigration detention, she said. Instead she rests her hopes on the success of Detention Dialogues in reaching this class of otherwise “invisible people.”

“We’re often told its bureaucratic, there is a deficit in the budget—we’re given all these reasons for why things are not better for detainees, but I think that the program we started and programs that are a part of this network (of emerging visitation programs) are good,” Mansfield said of the scarcity of resources for detainees. “Community groups have the will and the man power to step in fill in the gaps of what is missing,” she said.

Castro expresses a similar sentiment. “There is always going to be pain and heartache,” he said. “Sometimes you talk to someone on the phone everyday and it’s really depressing some of these people’s situations. But you do it despite that. The disappointment is a motivator in some ways, not a deterrent. If the alternative is doing nothing then that’s even worse.”

For more information contact Detention Dialogues at 415-574-0555 or visit For more information about current immigration laws under Immigration and Customs Enforcement visit

A new story in the Crossroads series will run every Wednesday.


  1. Dave Francis on March 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    The Obama administration crushing state sovereignty

    In the battling border state of Arizona where illegal immigration was one of the major voter concerns, the presidential candidates who “drove” the E-Verify issue benefited easily. After last week’s debate, Mitt Romney kept up the momentum and one the prize. Other than Ron Paul, the three have been supporting the national mandatory E-Verify (H.R.2885) through the campaign. But Romney, former Massachusetts Governor in last week’s significant debate made sure the voters knew his statement by emphasizing the strong aspect of the “Legal Workforce Bill” standpoint.

    Currently with people worried about their jobs, it’s not at all astonishing; that exit polling established that Arizona voters were mainly troubled in regards to illegal immigration that had been strongly introduced by Romney, who they recognized as “the mandatory E-Verify candidate.” The poll results should caused every candidate of every party for every office, whether Governor, Mayor or further elected official to consider being the “E-Verify candidate” in their race. While Romney had long been predictable to win Arizona, polling showed his lead was narrowing until last week’s debate performance when promoting federal E-Verify. This has drawn verbal torment from the other side, even though crowing that he would stumble by offering the attributes of this business hiring program.

    But a new national poll conducted by Pulse Opinion Research that the Left oriented media to be gibberish. The poll revealed that wide spread majorities of virtually every type of American voter support mandatory E-Verify. It also acknowledged that “the political core” of Independents and Moderates is about as delighted with national E-Verify as Republicans and Conservatives (Tea Party). Reacting to this survey even Democrats and Liberals are not poles apart on this issue.

    Whatever the Liberal Progressives rhetoric might be, the majority of Americans are not racist and the fact that at TEA PARTY chapters you will find a mix of Blacks, White, Hispanic, Asians and people from the Pacific Rim that fully determines the attitude of the American people towards illegal immigration control. More outspoken are people from every religious denomination, race who have entered this country through legal channels and are extremely unsympathetic to those who have jumped the line

    When debating last week, the Moderator tried to tempt Romney into a confrontation of how Hispanics and other minorities saw his immigration enforcement for America.

    Instead of being drawn into the harsh classification of Deportations and the border fence, Romney cleverly replied, “the right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job Barack Obama isn’t doing. And I will drop those lawsuits on day one. I’ll also complete the fence. I’ll make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure the fence.
    And I will make sure we have an E-Verify system and require employers to check the documents of workers, and to check E- Verify. And if an employer hires someone that has not gone through E- Verify, they’re going to get sanctioned just like they do for not paying their taxes. You do that, and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration. It’s time we finally did it.”

    If you really want the facts about the illegal alien occupation, the REAL border fence, Chain Migration, Sanctuary Cities, Deportation, “foothold Babies” the Backdoor Amnesty, Contagious diseases the Vendetta by Eric Holders Department of Justice suing Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina, Indiana and many other problem that is causing Americas unnecessary pain and anguish, then you need to view the uncensored pages, not suppressed by the Leftist media at (Google) AMERICAN PATROL. For information about the dishonesty, profiting in Washington and the state congressional seats of power, check the web pages of the (Google) JUDICIAL WATCH.

    Go read the statistics that in Arizona, Alabama where they are operating policing laws are leaving and the employment rate for citizens and legal residents is rising considerably. Foreign nationals are packing their stuff and turning up in less oppressive states like California and Nevada, with Liberal legislators.

    Does anybody have legitimate excuses for the numbers of American contractors, who have lost their businesses, because their occupational competition has used illegal immigrants at a lower bidding price for jobs? Across the country hundreds of thousands of small businesses have lost their incomes, because in residential construction, such as roofers, drywall installers, painter’s even electricians have used this type of cheap labor? Eventually unable to compete they have even been forced to drop their lawful workers, or make the painful decision of looking for day laborers or lesser skilled foreigners? An awful “Catch 22” situation by years of neglect to enforce immigration laws by uninterested administrations. Farmers and other industries have legally hired, guest workers, but what the general public is unaware of they pay nothing towards hospital visits or the children’s education. That again, is a financial taxpayer’s weight to contend with. States get nothing for these unfunded mandates, as it is a dollar seed that is still growing.

    We can win this battle if we all start a harassment campaign against Lawmakers, senior officials who are supposed to defend this country. The country is drowning in red ink and illegal immigration has roots in this growing problem. As a nations people we should stand with our fellow workers and demand mandatory E-Verify. This will make businesses accountable for using cheap labor and lowering wages, in the name of filling their pockets with your cash, while the U.S. taxpayer are forced to cover the cost of health care, education and the bloated prison system through the courts unfunded mandates. Contact your Senator or House member and insist they not only sponsor mandatory E-Verify, but also the “Birthright citizenship bill.” Both have their place in stringent enforcement.

  2. Tony Suggs on March 1, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    The reason why only 21% of the deportees were convicted criminals is, once the local district attorney is notified that the defendant is an illegal immigrant with an ICE detainer, they more often than not choose to not prosecute the defendant for the charges that led to their arrest.

    So it is not right to say that the majority of those deported are not criminals. They just were not prosecuted.

    It saves that county money and time to not prosecute someone that will most likely be deported by ICE.

    Do not portray the 79% as innocents. Even if they have no criminal charges against them, being in the country illegally is grounds enough for deportation.

    Its the law.

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