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Ligwasa Silang Tanan. Free Them All.

Rev. Deborah Lee, Executive Director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and April Newman from the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice gather outside of Otay Mesa Detention Center on May 30, 2022. Photo: Joyce Xi

Editor’s Note: Gala King is a second-generation Filipina residing on Ohlone land in Oakland, California, with her partner and two kids. She is Regional Program Director with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and a co-founding member of the Sama Sama Cooperative. King attended the “Pilgrimage for a Better Future: From the Heartbreak of Immigrant Detention to Thriving Communities,” along with Mahalaya founder Casey Ticsay, who served on the communications team. King wrote the following reflection about the five-day journey, which took place from May 28 to June 1, 2022.

A group of 35 community advocates, faith leaders, academics, and people directly impacted by detention and incarceration boarded a bus outside San Quentin State Prison on May 28. It was the first day of the Pilgrimage for a Better Future, a spiritual pilgrimage to bear witness to the preventable human suffering caused by immigrant detention in California.

The five-day pilgrimage was a prayer for the closure of immigrant detention facilities, the safe release of those on the inside, and the transformation and well-being of local communities in our state.

As a second-generation Filipina American, I joined this pilgrimage to witness the ways Filipinx are harmed by immigrant detention and how our legacy of resistance and cultural and faith values guide us to respond. On this journey, I was joined by other Filipinx participants, Professor Joyce Del Rosario and journalist Casey Ticsay. We carried the stories of our kababayan who had experienced detention and incarceration and were fighting for their kagawasan.

(Left to right) Casey Ticsay, April Newman, Gala King, Danny Thongsy, and Joyce Del Rosario stand outside of Imperial Regional Detention Facility on May 31, 2022. Photo: Joyce Xi

Immigrant detention facilities detain thousands of immigrants in California each year, separating families and loved ones from their communities. Among those in immigrant detention are immigrants with or without current status, legal permanent residents, asylum seekers, long-term U.S. residents, married U.S. citizens, and parents of U.S.-born children awaiting a government decision about their immigration case or deportation proceedings.

The United States has the largest immigration detention system in the world. California ranks fourth among all states with the largest population of detained immigrants. There are seven immigrant detention centers in California, six of which are operated by for-profit private prison corporations and one by a county government, Yuba County.

We traveled across the state, bringing art, prayer, and calls to the remaining seven immigrant detention centers and visiting additional sacred sites along the way. We lifted up knowledge that immigrant detention does not need to exist and that there are more effective and humane community alternatives to incarceration and detention. We lifted up a vision for thriving communities that do not need to rely on systems of punishment. And we reconnected with indigenous, pre-settler beliefs and practices that did not have borders, checkpoints, immigrant detention, or prisons.

Day One

We began the journey at San Quentin State Prison, the oldest penitentiary in California, on the land of the Coastal Miwok. Here, we remember the long history of incarceration and how the state’s prison industrial system collaborates with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Currently, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues the inhumane practice of transferring people to ICE once they have been found eligible for release from prison. From 2019-2020, CDCR transferred 3,200 people to ICE custody, according to data obtained by the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus. Ligwasa Silang Tanan.

From San Quentin, we traveled north to Yuba County Jail in Marysville, located in Nisenan Territory. Yuba County is the last government entity in California to have an immigrant-detention contract with ICE, earning about $8.66 million per year, whether or not people are being held in the jail. As of May 2022, four people remain in ICE custody at this facility. Ligwasa Silang Tanan.

Day Two

We drove to Pindale, a neighborhood just outside Fresno, where a Japanese American faith community hosted us. We met Marion Masada, an 89-year-old Japanese elder who was interned during World War II at the age of nine, following Executive Order 9066. Marion and pilgrimage participants who had recently experienced immigrant detention exchanged stories and prayers, embodying multiracial solidarity.

Our next stop was in Central Valley on the land of the Yokuts. Golden State Annex, located in a small agricultural town called McFarland, and the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield are operated by The GEO Group. GEO, one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the country, previously contracted with the CDCR to use Golden State Annex as a state prison. It was shut down in 2020 but was converted to an immigrant detention facility shortly after. Both facilities are known for medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, and COVID-19 failures. Ligwasa Silang Tanan.

We gathered outside the tall concrete walls surrounding the Mesa Verde facility, joined by community members who were previously detained inside. For some, this reunion was the first time they had seen each other since their release. They remembered the trauma of their captivity and honored 74-year-old Choung Won Ahn, who died by suicide in May 2020 — lawyers for Ahn submitted three requests for his release, citing concerns of mistreatment and the coronavirus pandemic, but all were rejected. They reflected on the moments of organized resistance and celebrated their liberation. And together, they called for the freedom for their brothers on the inside and the end of immigrant detention.

Day Three

We arrived in San Diego, Kumeyaay Territory, where Aztec dancers greeted us at Chicano Park. Kumeyaay leader Uncle Stan Rodriguez blessed our group and granted us permission to hold a ceremony on their land. After convening for an afternoon with food and live music, we said our goodbyes and embarked on our next stop at Otay Mesa Detention Center.

CoreCivic, a private prison corporation, operates Otay Mesa Detention Center. Core Civic failed to provide adequate PPE throughout the pandemic, limiting testing and neglecting proper quarantine protocols. As a result, hundreds of people became sick, including Carlos Escobar Meijia, the first person to die from Covid-19 while in ICE custody. Ligwasa Silang Tanan.

Near the US-Mexico border sits El Centro, the largest city in the Imperial Valley. We arrived at Sikh Gurdwara just before nightfall and were welcomed by Mr. Jaswand Singh, a Sikh priest who, as part of his faith tradition, provides hospitality and meals to all that arrive at his temple. He informed us that over 200 people from India, who had fled their homes and arrived at the U.S. southern border, are currently in ICE detention. Upon their release, ICE officials transport them to Sikh Gurdwara, where Mr. Singh helps them reach their next destination. Ligwasa Silang Tanan.

Private prison company MTC is paid $45 million annually by the federal government to operate the Imperial Regional Detention Center. Earlier this year, nine organizers inside Imperial filed a civil rights complaint citing hazardous air, dust, mold, and drinking water contamination. People inside are subjected to dangerous conditions due to poor ventilation and air filtration at the facility, as well as toxic environmental pollution in Imperial County, which includes high levels of air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter. Ligwasa Silang Tanan.

Day Four and Five

Our last stop was in the Inland Empire, on the land of the Serrano. Adelanto Detention Facility has been detaining people since 2011 when the City of Adelanto entered into a contract with ICE and GEO to detain 975 people. Since then, ICE has expanded the facility to detain 2,690 people, making the Adelanto Detention Facility the largest ICE detention center on the West Coast. Ligwasa Silang Tanan.

Throughout the pilgrimage, we were led by directly impacted community leaders, who brought their testimonies, pain, and calls to action to end these inhumane systems. We were held by faith leaders, who brought their sacred ceremonies, prayers, and spiritual resources. The journey will live on in our minds, hearts, and movements. We welcome you to join us.

Laura Hernandez and Mario Perez, two participants of the “Pilgrimage for a Better Future: From the Heartbreak of Immigrant Detention to Thriving Communities,” during a prayer ceremony at Otay Mesa Detention Center on May 30, 2022. Photo: Joyce Xi

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