by Chris Nelson
The man I met during a late October visit to the Yuba County Jail has a kind face, wears glasses and has a neat, graying hairstyle. He was the third inmate I’ve met through a visitation program run by Faithful Friends, a group that arranges visits for immigrant detainees.
As a nurse, I know that anecdotal information does not make a truth. Yet, I’m struck by the similarities among the three men I’ve visited, and I see truth emerging through the presence of these castaway humans.
The first man I visited was in his 40s and facing deportation to Vietnam. He grew up in a two-parent home in a poor neighborhood and was bullied at school for being different.
Then, I met a young man from Kenya who also faces deportation. He came to the United States as a child with his mother to escape from severe and unrelenting domestic violence. He, too, had been bullied.
On this third visit, I met a Central American man in his early 50s; I’ll call him “Luis,” not his real name, to protect his privacy. His mom left him with his aunt in San Salvador when he was 3 years old. Luis grew up pretty much neglected. He was brought to the United States when he was 10, only after being raped by a caregiver, an experience that still causes him reflection and agony. When he was returned to the care of his mother, he had a lot of anger and hadn’t yet been able to forgive her for abandoning him.
All three men pushed past their immigrant parents for material things and fell into gangs, drugs and crime. All three served long sentences, and in my view, should have been released to rebuild their curtailed lives after paying their debts to society. But as non-citizen immigrants, all three ended up in the pipeline for deportation — at the Yuba County Jail.
What struck me is that each of them has internalized the view that they’re “bad” — which they are not. They struggle with the anguish they caused their parents, whom they now understand suffered greatly in their effort to get to this country, to safe harbor.
Luis’s mother died in 2014 while he was incarcerated. He never saw her during her illness, and aches just to know where she is buried. He yearns to visit her grave and is filled with remorse that he wasn’t the son he should have been — so much so that he is in and out of the infirmary for cutting himself. He does not sleep unless medicated, and when he speaks about this pain, his face draws in so much he barely looks alive. He can’t forgive himself.
Luis is also in a battle with cancer.
All three men are terrified that they’ll be sent back to countries that they do not know and where no one knows them, to countries where they don’t speak the language. Luis is even more frightened because he is gay and believes he will be killed once someone sees his tattoos, or once his identity becomes clear. He is applying for asylum and is filled with dread and uncertainty, and his home country is indeed dangerous for him by any reading of the news.
Faithful Friends assigns hour-long visits for detainees on holds by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Luis, so in need of human care, had not had a visitor for a month.
I told Luis it was good that he had taken responsibility for the crimes he committed, but that he should also look for forgiveness for that child in him. I reminded him what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said — that poverty is the worst form of violence — and I told him that his school should have done more to protect him from bullying.
Society failed these three struggling men and indirectly caused whatever havoc they wreaked as teens and young adults. They ended up exactly where their environments and circumstances took them – to a life of incarceration.
Faithful Friends says it arranged 69 visits by 24 visitors to men and women in immigrant detention in the month of October. To become a Yuba County Jail visitor, contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Nelson is a local activist.