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Filipinx activism and the fight to keep families together

(Right to left) Maria Legarda embraces Brandi “Grammy” Taliano at Morcom Rose Garden on April 30, 2022. The two friends spent the afternoon in Oakland, California, reminiscing about the challenges of their past, which shaped Legarda’s passion for making a difference in the lives of formerly incarcerated Filipinos today. Photo: Jeanina Casusi

Maria Legarda, a Filipina community and faith leader, looked back at the Central California Women’s Facility, a place she had called home for 14 years. At last, she could reunite with her family and begin a new chapter of her life. But what was meant to be a celebration became the beginning of a different fight and journey.

“I was very grateful for my second chance. It’s finally over. I am coming home to my family. But then I looked down and saw my wrists with cuffs shackled to my feet,” Legarda said.

She never made it home. Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials escorted Legarda into a van, immediately transferred her to San Bernardino County Adelanto Detention Facility, and detained her for 11 months.

The practice, otherwise known as “ICE transfers,” is a collaboration between ICE and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that systematically places people with an immigration “hold” and previous conviction into prolonged detention and deportation proceedings. The CDRC voluntarily notifies ICE of a person’s release date and helps facilitate an arrest at the prison, disregarding their personal transformation, time served, or ties to the community.

“The right to live is for every human being. So who gets to dictate that? No matter the status, no matter the color, every person living and breathing has the right to live a safe life with the people they love,” Legarda said.

Legarda immigrated from the Philippines to the United States at 20 years old. She was on her own and had just graduated from college. A survivor of sexual assault, she faced many hardships that led to addiction and a sentence of 15 years to life. While serving her time, Legarda transformed her life and was granted early release for her rehabilitation efforts and mentorship to other women.

She became the first female intern at Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) and the first person to intern in its Roots to Reentry program (R2R), assisting formerly incarcerated individuals along their reentry journeys. Legarda continues to fight for her right to remain in the United States with her loved ones.

“I’m grateful for having my family stand by my side,” Legarda said. “The beauty of going through this turmoil, this limbo, while it puts a strain on my family, is that we encourage each other. There is nothing that we as a family cannot overcome.”

Maria Legarda at the Morcom Rose Garden on April 30, 2022. Photo: Jeanina Casusi

Faith is an integral part of the movement to end ICE transfers and keep families together. Organizations such as the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (IM4HI) and its newest collective, Kasama Ng Kalayaan, provide spaces for healing to community members directly impacted by policies and practices that make up the U.S. carceral and immigration systems.

Students, faith and directly impacted leaders, community advocates, and family members engage in various actions to urge the release of individuals from detention and incarceration and accompany them as they reenter society. Their efforts include community zoom discussions, support letters, prayer vigils, educational outreach, freedom campaigns, legal strategies, and fundraising for reentry programs and support.

“There’s a lack of resources for people coming out of immigration detention and incarceration. Very few resources from the government and state go towards [reentry], so everything becomes reliant on the community. We’re creating these systems of care to fill that gap and provide the support and resources they need,” said Gala King, a second-generation Filipinx and the Regional Program Director of Northern California for IM4HI.

King launched Kasama ng Kalayaan in 2020 alongside other community leaders, including Legarda and Rose Lynn Abesamis-Bell, a Filipina faith leader. The collective aims to deepen cultural and faith traditions and organize for the liberation and healing of Filipinx affected by the immigration-to school-to prison-to deportation pipeline.

The collective’s reach extends across borders and oceans. One of its members is Jon Sales Jr., a reentry coordinator from Stockton, California. He was incarcerated at the age of 18 and served 20 years in prison. During this time, he received an education and transformed his life. Despite being granted parole, Sales Jr. was transferred directly to ICE custody and detained for an additional three years. In 2018, he was deported to the Philippines, leaving behind his wife, family, and community. Today, Sales Jr. continues fighting for his freedom and right to return to the place he calls home: the United States.

“I left the Philippines when I was five years old and came back at 41. Even though I’m Filipino, coming back was a culture shock because I’ve been gone. These are my people, but damn, I feel like an outcast because I didn’t speak the language,” Sales Jr. said.

Sales Jr. serves as a crucial line of communication between the Philippines and the Bay Area and is a vocal advocate in the movement to end immigration detention and deportation. He connects with other Filipinx via Facebook, where they can stay connected, ask questions, share concerns, and support one another as they rebuild their lives in the Philippines. More than anything, Sales Jr. emphasizes the need to establish policies and reentry programs, similar to APSC, that support individuals like him in the Philippines.

“The key element here is to be reunited with your family, regardless of where you’re coming from — jail, prison, or whatever the case may be. To me, it’s all about family,” Sales Jr. said. “I want to help those in that same position and do whatever I can to make sure that whatever avenues they have to take will help them succeed.”

Currently on the Senate Floor in the California state 2022 legislative session is AB 937, the Voiding Inequality and Seeking Inclusion for Our Immigrant Neighbors (VISION) Act. Authored by Assembly member Wendy Carrillo, the VISION Act would protect refugee and immigrant community members — who are already deemed eligible for release from local jails and state prisons — from being funneled to immigration detention. APSC and IM4HI are actively advocating for the passage of the VISION Act to stop ICE transfers of community members.

The liberation and well-being of Filipinx impacted by incarceration and immigration are deeply personal to Ber-Mar Elam San Diego, a first-generation Filipino community organizer. He witnessed firsthand how these systems oppress and separate families, having been separated from his parents in middle school and raised by different family members.

“We have many folks that are system impacted who are very traumatized by the system and by the violence that’s happened to them,” San Diego said. “Being able to face those fears head-on every single day and speak about them — from personal experience, I think that’s really powerful. There’s a lot of healing and wisdom that can be passed on.”

Ber-Mar San Diego poses for a photo in Oakland on May 8, 2022. Photo: Jeanina Casusi

San Diego’s father was in and out of jail, and his mother struggled with drug use. Despite his family’s hardships, he found healing through education. After completing high school, San Diego enrolled in ethnic studies classes at Chabot College and learned about the history of his people and different diasporas in the United States. He transferred to the University of California Berkeley and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in Race and the Law in 2018. San Diego’s advocacy work with APSC, Filipino Advocates for Justice, and Kasama ng Kalayaan focuses on educating and empowering youth.

“As a youth whose system impacted, it was very easy for me to follow certain family members’ footsteps and follow down a path of violence and self-destruction. Inspiring youth early and helping them build confidence and understand their power can save lives,” San Diego said.

Sama Sama, a summer camp program based in the East Bay, provides spaces for Filipinx youth to explore their heritage, language, and identity through the arts and community-building activities. King and Abesamis-Bell founded the cooperative-run camp alongside other first, second, and third-generation Filipinx ranging from parents and educators to artists and community organizers. Sama Sama is deeply rooted in the Filipino value of kapwa. Youth have the opportunity to learn about the systemic issues that Filipinx in the United States face, hear personal testimonies, and join the larger movement to reunite immigrant families and communities.

“When my kids and I were listening to some of the presentations, the story of family is the one they could connect to the most because it was closest to their experience,” Abesamis-Bell said. “It’s another entry point for the youth in our community to connect. Maybe you don’t know somebody who’s incarcerated, but you can all relate to having a meal together or having a family member in crisis. We can all relate to trying to keep a family unit intact.”

For Abesamis-Bell, a personal connection can be had when participating in this work, whether it be through visuals, articles, or letters of support.

“Whatever your role is, it’s very meaningful. I think it’s empowering our kids to know that they have a voice and hopefully our community to know that we need to take care of ourselves and each other,” Abesamis-Bell said.

King stresses the importance of understanding how the systems of immigration and incarceration work together and are designed to separate people and communities.

“We know this work [to dismantle systems of oppression] can’t be done by one movement or community alone,” King said. “Solidarity between communities is so important and necessary for true liberation.”

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