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What School Doesn’t Teach You

Hulissa Aguilar speaks during the Pilgrimage For a Better Future.

What School Doesn’t Teach You: Learning About the Immigration System Firsthand

by IM4HI Youth Leader Hulissa Aguilar

On May 28, 2022 I began my 5-day journey on the The Pilgrimage for a Better Future, a journey to visit each of the seven immigrant detention centers in California, having no idea what to expect. My father was formerly incarcerated in West County Jail, one of five immigrant detention centers that has permanently shut down. My family has experienced the harmful effects of ICE transfers. But I still did not understand the system completely and how these detention centers work. I wanted to learn more about immigration. I needed to contribute to help those inside, as IM4HI helped my father who was formally detained. And I needed to heal. 

Following the launch at San Quentin, we made our way to the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, CA, the last jail in California to have a contract with ICE. Unlike all the other detention facilities we were going to visit, I was familiar with this one. Four years ago I saw my father for the first time after 17 months of being detained by ICE, outside of this building.

At our second stop at Yuba County Jail, I decided to speak about my story. Even though it was a very challenging thing to do as my emotions were raw, I did it to speak up for those who have had similar experiences as me.

As we drove by the jail to go to the other side of the building, I looked out the window and saw the railing my father and I took a picture in front of. Just seeing that railing and remembering what it was like in that moment to see my father come outside of the jail caused a rush of sadness to hit me.

In 2018, when my father Hugo and I were reunited for the first time after 17 months of separation.

I felt every emotion that my younger self felt when finding out the news that my dad was detained by ICE through the cries of my family members over the phone. I remembered the anxiety I felt when seeing my father for the first time again but behind a glass. The desperation I felt waiting for hours to get into the appointment visits. The way my heart would stop for a second when the guards were checking our belongings and having us go through the monitors. I remembered the confusion and complete emptiness I felt when my friends would ask where my dad was and I had no idea how to explain it myself. I felt everything, even though I thought I had healed.

Our third stop of the Pilgrimage for a Better Future was at the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, California. I led the pilgrimage prayer, which was a combination of gestures to honor the land we stood on and to recognize the immigrants whom we are advocating for.

That’s the thing about healing though. It is not linear and certain places or events can trigger that trauma again. I experienced that trauma around 5 years ago. Yet when I saw the building, a part of  me broke again. Yes, my dad was released and reunited with his family. But I will always carry that pain with me, a crack in my heart, because being separated from your parent is not something you can just “forget” about or live on with. Every day when my father was detained and I was free on the other side, I worried about him. I never knew what tomorrow held. I never knew if he would still be here in the United States or deported back to a country he barely knows. A country where he would not be secure the way he is here with his family. So many questions that were left unanswered. So much pain that was left untreated. I never completely healed from that part of my life. But from that point on, I felt a sense of relief to let my tears and pain out of the experience I had. I realized my purpose was to speak for the people inside and their children who are suffering in silence, just as I did.

Outside of the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which is one of the 6 for-profit private prisons that we visited.

In order to participate on the pilgrimage, I had to miss school, which was very stressful for me at first since finals were the following week. But I learned more about our country in 5 days than I have in the 11 years or so that I’ve been in school. I was learning about things that are happening now and aren’t being amplified enough. I learned that ICE detention centers are private prisons owned by companies that use them for profit. I connected with families like my own who have been separated from their loved ones and are fighting to be reunited. I learned so much about myself as well. That my trauma does not define me. I am a directly impacted person by ICE transfers and the daughter of an immigrant. I am resilient and capable of fighting for change in our country. I do the work I do to shine light on the lives of those experiencing the pain I did. I am here to help speak for them and their children, who haven’t recognized their voice and power yet.

Our very last stop was at the Adelanto Detention Center. I am shown here with my aunt, Icela, who became my guardian when my father was detained and has supported me all these years. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today nor have had the courage to tell my story and start my advocacy work.

If you are impacted by immigration or just want to learn more about the system check out the zine We The Youth I helped create! You can also learn more about the Pilgrimage for a Better Future and the immigrant detention centers we visited. 

To other youth impacted by ICE, I want you to know, our voices matter.

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