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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Rev. Dr. Allison Tanner, Pastor of Public Witness, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church.
Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church is an inclusive community of followers of Jesus who work to bless and heal our neighborhood. Grounded in a vision of justice, equality, and well-being for all, we work to embody beloved community in Oakland and the greater Bay Area. We recently celebrated our fifth anniversary as a Sanctuary congregation and our partnership with Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Looking back, it has been an educational, energizing, and empowering experience that has allowed us to deepen our faith and commitment to immigrant justice.
Our journey began in January of 2017. Days after the inauguration of President Trump, we gathered at a congregational meeting and shared deep concerns about the newly sanctioned racist and xenophobic attacks on our immigrant neighbors. The urgency of the moment stirred us, but we weren’t equipped to address the needs of those being attacked, exploited, and threatened with expulsion. We turned to Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (IM4HI) for guidance.
Through IM4HI’s leadership, we began a process of assessing what it meant to provide sanctuary in this moment. We explored the avenues of education, advocacy, accompaniment, and freedom campaigns, all of which were important ways we could participate in this work. Our congregation wrestled with the idea of providing physical sanctuary in our congregation, due to lack of adequate facilities (e.g., showers or beds), as well as insurance concerns. We were thrilled to learn that there are a multitude of ways to engage in offering sanctuary and we were encouraged to pursue the avenues that matched what we could offer: big hearts, a willingness to learn, build relationships and engage in advocacy. In May of 2017, our congregation voted to become a Sanctuary Congregation and committed to the work of immigrant justice in ways that were appropriate for our congregational context. We appointed a Sanctuary Working Group to lead the congregation in living out this commitment.
Welcome the Stranger, a foundational Biblical command, was the theme of our early commitment. As our government enacted racist bans and threatened raids, we learned how to band together in solidarity with immigrants for their full inclusion in this country. We started attending IM4HI monthly meetings to better understand what was happening and equip ourselves to address the needs of our community. This also allowed us to develop important relationships with other congregations on a similar journey. We started attending prayer vigils, listening to heartbreaking stories of those in detention, and praying for their release. After a few months, we accepted the invitation to lead a vigil outside the West County Detention Facility, offering our own sacred rituals of prayer, song, and commitment to justice. In addition, we traveled to Sacramento to advocate for the passage of SB54, limiting the power of ICE in California. Through our engagement with this bill, making calls, and joining the community advocating for immigrant justice, we felt personal pride in playing a small role in the passage of this legislation that provides a protective shield around immigrants in our state.
The second year our commitment evolved to Loving our Immigrant Neighbors, a central command of Jesus applied specifically to our Oakland neighbors, ⅓ of whom are immigrants. We began cultivating relationships with immigrants seeking asylum, freedom from deportation, and full citizenship rights. IM4HI connected us to individuals who shared their stories in our congregation, engaging in freedom campaigns to advocate for people in detention and get to know their families. We learned as a congregation how racist and xenophobic immigration policies and practices work to prevent our immigrant neighbors from accessing full citizenship rights. Lakeshore’s diverse membership is predominantly African American and Euro American. It was easy to connect the dots between exploitation and denial of rights of African Americans with what we were witnessing with black and brown immigrants. IM4HI’s analysis of the history of racism and xenophobia in the U.S. provided a helpful framework to understand these unjust and perpetual struggles.
During this time a Ugandan pastor and asylum seeker stumbled upon our congregation, and we were ready to offer both embrace and accompaniment. We journeyed with Brian as he navigated finding housing, work and ultimately asylum. We were overcome with joy when he was granted asylum yet devastated as he shared stories of every other person in his group being denied the opportunity to stay in this country. IM4HI provided a model for how we could best accompany Brian and the larger IM4HI community provided opportunities to share his story and preach in different contexts.
Sanctuary in a Time of Raids. In 2019, the increased threats to our immigrant neighbors and the fruits of our journey coincided to reveal how living out our sanctuary commitment was transforming us. During that summer, President Trump was terrifying the immigrant community with threats of raids, as well as singling out places that were challenging his racist policies. Oakland made the short list, and our city was racked with fear. Specific threats were issued on a Friday, that raids were to begin that Sunday, putting thousands at risk. Over the weekend, our Sanctuary Working Group huddled to come up with a plan. By Sunday, we gathered the congregation following worship to beseech them to open the doors of our congregation to anyone afraid to go home. “How long will this last?” was a pressing question. “As long as the threat is real,” was all we could answer. Despite the ambiguity of the moment, people began raising their hands – “I can provide meals if people stay at the church.” “I can offer money to cover expenses incurred.” “I can spend a few hours at the church to offer hospitality.” “I can spend the night at the church to help out.” “I can offer a room in my home.” The congregation rallied to do whatever was needed to keep our community safe. Fortunately, Trump never did follow through on his threats of mass raids, but he did accomplish the goal of terrorizing an already fearful community. The threats did, however, allow our congregation to mobilize into action and prepare us for the next level of commitment to providing Sanctuary in our community.
The following year, would provide a new crisis. The call of Jesus that our church proclaims is not only to provide welcome, support, love, and care, but also to transform societal structures to end injustice repair the harms created by systems of oppression. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard anew Jesus’ prophetic call, echoing the prophet Isaiah, to Release the Captives. This began as a literal call to release those who were in detention, a system we had already learned was unnecessary, unjust, and inhumane. Since it was impossible to avoid COVID exposure in detention centers, the pandemic rendered detention a potential death sentence to anyone inside. Federal judges were demanding humane release, but ICE insisted detainees have a place to go before they would release anyone. Most had family members to return to, but some did not. Our congregation was asked by IM4HI to consider providing temporary shelter to allow for the release of a Salvadoran young man. Since our church building sat empty due to pandemic shelter in place ordinances, and despite earlier concerns, we could not deny this opportunity to help someone attain freedom from ICE’s cruel clutches. When we learned our new friend’s story, of enduring nearly four years in detention, we began to understand the long-term harms of immigration detention and how this system functions to isolate, criminalize, and destroy hopes of finding safety in our country. Oscar stayed in our sanctuary only 5 days, as we still didn’t have facilities for long-term hosting. Yet our limited provisions allowed for his immediate release, and other IM4HI congregations provided longer-term housing and accompaniment for the next year. Our church continued to provide emotional and spiritual accompaniment. 15 months after his release from detention, there were representatives from four IM4HI congregations in the courtroom accompanying Oscar. We witnessed the culmination of a four-year trial in which his immigration judge reluctantly halted his deportation. Though able to stay in this country. Oscar will not be able to access the rights of full citizenship. Together we celebrated his newly-granted safety.
Befriending Oscar on his journey to liberation and experiencing our own liberation – from ignorance and isolation of the harms taking place in our community – has been transformative. Our journey to release the captives continues as we’ve joined the movement to release as many captives from detention as possible and work to end the practice of immigration detention in California.
Each step of this journey has been taken in close partnership with IM4HI, who invited us to go deeper, introduced us to people harmed by injustice, equipped us to respond to the needs around us, connected us with additional resources, and prepared us to expand our faith commitments. And, of course, allowed us to partner with amazing faith leaders and congregations throughout the Bay Area who have been companions on our journey. We have learned that the work of providing Sanctuary is indeed sacred work. It is work that allows us to more fully embrace beloved community. As we look to the future, we encourage other congregations distraught by what is happening to migrants and immigrants in this country to discern what resources you have and how you might join in the work of the larger IM4HI community. The need is great; the work is healing. The relationships are transformative, and as we learned each step of the way, there are a multitude of ways to get involved. Find one or more that are appropriate to your context and join in the life-giving and liberative work of ensuring immigrant justice in our country!
by Rev. Dr. Allison Tanner, Pastor of Public Witness, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church
Enjoy this wonderful song written for and about the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity! Images include many of you who have been part of our work in the past few years. Original music and lyrics by Benjasoul with lyrical help from the IM4HI staff. Video production by Sergio Jaime Lopez.