Christina Fialho was in law school with hopes of becoming an immigration attorney, when a friend’s father disappeared into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) system. Later, they found out he’d been deported to Mexico. “To this day, she and her father are separated,” Fialho says.
After the incident, Fialho, whose great-grandfather, grandparents and dad all emigrated from the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, made it her mission to learn more about what’s often an opaque and isolating process for undocumented immigrants and their loved ones. Once detained, “They can hire pro bono attorneys or pay for a private attorney, but 84 percent of people in immigration detention are not represented, because there is no right to a court-appointed attorney,” she says. Many can’t even afford to place costly calls to family members on the outside.
So Fialho, along with social justice advocate Christina Mansfield, cofounded Detention Dialogues in 2010, the first visitation program for immigrant detainees in California.
Bolstered by success of their joint effort, the two Christinas expanded their reach by building and coordinating a national network of visitation programs. In 2012, they launched Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement — or CIVIC for short — a national nonprofit that works to abolish detention centers by monitoring human rights abuses and offering alternates to the current system. The watchdog organization also advocates for legislative changes, such as limiting ICE’s expansion of detention centers, and it operates a free, confidential hotline for detainees to connect with family and to report any abuses. On average, CIVIC volunteers process around 14,000 calls a month from all 210 of the country’s immigration detention centers.
“The mere act of a visitation is great, but turning that into a tool for advocacy was really where we saw the potential for systemic change,” says Erica Lock, director of fellowship programs at Echoing Green, a nonprofit that helped Fialho and Mansfield launch CIVIC.
DEATH AND ABUSE IN DETENTION
The myriad issues facing immigrants in detention — including substandard medical care, prolonged imprisonment and poor nutrition — are stark, and they’re only getting worse. Since ICE was created in 2003, there have been more than 175 confirmed deaths in detention centers nationwide. Since October 2016, 11 immigrants have died while in custody, the highest number since 2011.
Between January 2010 and July 2016, there were 33,126 complaints of sexual or physical abuse in immigration detention facilities, with just 1.7 percent of those complaints leading to an investigation by the federal government. “If we can educate the public and our legislators about how our tax dollars go to perpetrating human and civil rights abuses, that’s one step toward change,” Fialho says. “The second is providing alternatives to [detention centers].”
The alternatives championed by CIVIC work similarly to refugee resettlement programs, says Fialho, in which a nonprofit typically steps in to help immigrants obtain housing, a social security card and, if necessary, legal support. “Individuals may spend weeks, months or even years in detention centers,” says Fialho. “We’ve been working to get those people released and provide them with support.”
CIVIC’s efforts have been “critically important” in helping detainees feel less isolated, supporting their legal cases and advocating on their behalf, says Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She also sees potential for change through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a bipartisan law passed in 2003 and standardized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2014 to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse and assault at its detention centers.
The hope, says Lopez, is that CIVIC’s “recent efforts in telling the stories and collecting information about sexual assaults will have an impact on how the implementation of PREA moves forward.”
STATEWIDE SUCCESS DRIVES NATIONAL EFFORTS
This past summer CIVIC, along with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, successfully advocated for the inclusion of a provision in a California budget bill that limits ICE’s expansion of detention centers in the state. It’s the first law of its kind in the country, and it bars all new contracts between local municipalities and ICE for the next 10 years. CIVIC also co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act, recently signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown, that freezes the growth of for-profit immigrant detention centers — another first in the U.S.
“Our budget bill stopped the spread of immigration detention facilities run by county jails in California,” Fialho says, noting that 70 percent of people detained in the state and nationwide are held in for-profit facilities.
Increasingly, Fialho has her sights on shaping policy at the national level. Her team has already began filing federal civil rights complaints, including one that alleges rising sexual abuse inside the centers and another that claims detainees at one California facility are frequently denied visits from attorneys and family members.
Fialho and CIVIC have also consulted on a federal budget amendment to stop immigrant detention expansion nationwide and are co-sponsors of a new bill introduced in October called the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which builds upon the organization’s achievements in California. “We’ve been able to push for policy change,” says Fialho. “That’s been really powerful.”