Friends of Orange County Detainees Provide Support to Immigrants and Often Find Lifelong Relationships

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

After an arduous and dangerous journey from Honduras, a request for asylum at the border in San Diego, and two lonely months at an immigrant detention center in Irvine, the young woman is finally free.

A van takes her from the James A. Musick jail to a federal building in Santa Ana on a bright, breezy afternoon. As a victim of domestic violence, she was granted asylum because her life was in danger. Wearing jeans and a black knit top and clutching a brown sack containing a few books and her asylum paperwork, the woman stands on the sidewalk looking terrified.

Sheryl Hagen, a member of Friends of Orange County Detainees who was informed of the woman’s release by her pro bono attorney, greets her. They embrace and Hagen says to her in a soothing tone, “It’s going to be OK.” The woman smiles shyly. After they climb into Hagen’s car, she hands the woman a bottle of water and shows her how to use a seat belt.

They chat in a mix of Hagen’s fractured Spanish and the woman’s limited English. As Hagen drives, she asks about the woman’s family. With the help of a translation app on her phone, Hagen explains that they are going to Isaiah House, a shelter in Santa Ana. Hagen, who has short red hair swept behind her ears and is wearing sandals, loose white pants, a blue-striped top, and large aqua sunglasses, has a welcoming, reassuring manner. Once they arrive at the large two-story home on a street lined with a graceful canopy of acacia trees, Hagen gives the woman a backpack filled with clothes, toiletries, and a phone she can use for a month. It will help her contact Honduran friends living in the U.S. who have promised to pick her up and help her adjust to her new life.

After a tour of the house, Hagen, the woman, and a few workers and residents who speak Spanish lounge in the backyard and chat awhile. When Hagen feels the woman is comfortable and has settled in, she says goodbye and they hug again.

“I will never forget you,” the woman whispers. “I love you.”

“You’ll always have a place in my heart,” Hagen says.

Ellen DeYoung’s visits to Tawfic Umar gave him hope while he was detained. Photograph by John Cizmas

Friends of Orange County Detainees is a group of about 75 volunteers who visit immigrant detainees at the Musick facility and the Theo Lacy jail in Orange. Both facilities are contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to house people who are either asylum seekers or immigrants, documented or undocumented, awaiting an immigration hearing.

The friends group made nearly 2,000 visits in 2016—an average of 10 per day during the four days per week the jails are open for visiting. Some of the nearly 800 detainees in Orange County have been in custody for months, even years, awaiting immigration hearings or deportation. Many are asylum seekers because they’re truly alone, their families in distant lands, Hagen says. Others have lived in the U.S. for years before being picked up by authorities, and they have people nearby who can visit them.

The organization was formed in 2012 when some members of Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Mission Viejo, discovered that many detainees were languishing, with limited access to legal support and without a single visit. The group was founded, Hagen says, “by some old, white church ladies,” and many of the detainees call the women “Mom.” Volunteers now represent a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

“I was reluctant at first to get involved,” says Hagen, a retired elementary school teacher who lives in Lake Forest and is a member of the Unitarian congregation. “I didn’t want to get involved in an activist group that believes in completely open borders. I think there needs to be screening and vetting. But when I discovered that many of the people we were going to visit were asylum seekers who were persecuted in their home countries, I became interested.”

In addition to visiting, the volunteers often try to contact detainees’ families, help them obtain documents to buttress their asylum claims, and connect them with pro bono attorneys. Unlike criminal defendants, they are not provided with free legal representation.

Most members limit their involvement to visiting. Some prefer to see a different person each week; some enjoy building relationships and will see the same detainee for months or years. Others, such as Hagen, are involved with the Transition Program and are on call to take detainees to shelters after their release.

The visits are important because many of the detainees are isolated and endure challenging conditions. In the spring, a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that immigrants held in the Theo Lacy jail were housed in trash-strewn cells, with high- and low-risk detainees sometimes housed together, and that they were served spoiled lunch meat and provided moldy showers. A spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said the facilities now have a new meat vendor, and other problems from the report have been rectified as well.

Peggy Thompson, left, has grown to love Angelica Romero “like a child or grandchild,”
she says.

Ellen DeYoung, a retired nurse with three grown children, is one of the original founders of the organization. The first person she visited made an indelible impression on her. The woman, who was from the Philippines, began sobbing as soon as she sat across from her. DeYoung asked what was wrong. She told her she had been in the facility for two years and had never received a letter or had a single visitor. When she regained her composure, she said to DeYoung, “I’m just so happy you’re here.”

DeYoung heard about a young man who had never had a visitor, Tawfic Umar from Ghana. DeYoung has visited so many people from that country that detainees began calling her “Mama Ghana.” “I never talked to anyone, other than the guards,” said Umar, who had been at the facility for almost a year. “I felt like nobody knew I was here; nobody knew I even existed. I was heartbroken.”

DeYoung began visiting Umar weekly and contacted his family in Ghana, where he’d had a dispute with a local chief. Vigilantes had threatened his life and killed a friend who’d helped him escape. DeYoung obtained a Ghanaian newspaper article and other documents that supported Umar’s story, which helped him gain asylum. He was released in February 2016 and moved to New York with an uncle who lived in a Ghanaian neighborhood. Umar remained in contact with DeYoung, who discovered that he still mostly spoke his native language instead of English and was not assimilating. She believed he could become successful if given the right opportunities.

“This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. … This is not like making a donation. This is one  human being directly helping another.”

Four months after his release, she invited him to live with her until he adjusted to life in the U.S. She wasn’t sure about the decision. Her youngest child had just graduated from college, and she was looking forward to becoming an empty nester, she says. She was also concerned that Umar would not be comfortable living in a predominantly white community.

“He was so miserable in New York; I thought I’ll bring him here for a while and then figure something out,” De-Young says. “From the time he arrived, he was such a go-getter. Every day when he walked to English class, he asked for a job at every business he passed. He quickly got hired at a restaurant. He worked so hard, was so determined to assimilate, and was so comfortable here that he just became part of the family.” 

Before Umar left Ghana, he sold eight cows to get enough money to embark on the four-month journey. He flew from Ghana to Brazil, then made his way north from Ecuador to Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, before arriving at the U.S. border and asking for asylum. He traveled through jungles at night, crossed rivers on rickety wooden boats, and hid in cattle trucks. He was robbed on his journey and saw travel companions robbed and murdered. Today, he lives with DeYoung, whom he calls Mom, on a lushly landscaped street in Laguna Niguel, in a spacious suburban house with a swimming pool. Now 22, Umar has a job bagging groceries at a supermarket, is attending community college, and plans to become a firefighter. He regularly sends money home to his family in Ghana.

“For many, many months while I was in the jail, I felt like I was buried,” says Umar, who is dressed in a colorful dashiki. “But after Mom came to see me, I was able to relax a bit. I slept well for the first time. Mom’s visit gave me hope.”

Peggy Thompson, the head of the organization’s leadership team, has taken into her home about a dozen transgender women from Central America, after their release from Orange County facilities—some for a few days, and some for a few months. Many of the women fled Central America because they had been threatened or assaulted by gangs and disowned by their families. One 22-year-old woman from Honduras, Angelica Romero, has lived with Thompson in her quiet Irvine condo for almost two years.

“When I started volunteering, I never expected to put people up in my house,” says Thompson, who is divorced and has no children. “But I’ve grown to love Angelica like a child or a grandchild. She’s so sweet.” Thompson smiles and says, “She tells me she’s going to take care of me in my old age.”

Romero was a detainee when Thompson met her, and they visited regularly. When Romero was granted asylum, she moved to Florida and lived with an aunt. The aunt and her husband were barely eking out a living and resented having to support Romero, who had to wait six months before she could obtain a work permit. Romero called Thompson, the only other person she knew in the U.S., and cried. Thompson sent her a bus ticket. Romero got a job at Panda Express and attends cosmetology school and English classes.

“When Peggy first started visiting me, it meant so much,” Romero says in Spanish, as Thompson translates. “You’re very alone there. Everyone has their own problems.” Romero, wearing a loose green shift and flip-flops, turns toward Thompson, nods, and says, “She has helped me more than anyone in my life. I feel safe with her. She knows and accepts me. She has become my mother, and it’s not easy having a trans daughter. Living here with Peggy has been the best time of my life.”

The group’s purpose, Thompson says, is simply to let detainees know they are not alone. “We want them to know that there is someone in their life who they can talk to. It means so much to the people we visit; they’re so grateful we’re there. This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my life. Most volunteer work is indirect. This is not like making a donation. This is one human being directly helping another.”

  In a typical month, Thompson says, the group can accommodate only about 25 percent of the detainees who sign up for visits. There just aren’t enough volunteers. Detainees come from Mexico, Central America, and dozens of countries in South America, Africa, and Asia. And while some volunteers are multilingual, some of the languages are so obscure that there are no volunteers who are fluent.

Thompson says the group has avoided taking sides in the immigration debate. Its focus is humanitarian. “Still, we’re all concerned about what (President) Trump will do,” she says. “The statements he has made about immigrants and the constant threats of deportation have made the detainees and their families very fearful. People in jail ask us what’s going to happen to them. We don’t have any answers. We’re worried, too.”

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