Southland Episcopalians said a June 20 pilgrimage to visit asylum-seekers at the Adelanto Detention Center in commemoration of World Refugee Day ended in frustration and anger when authorities prevented them from entering the troubled facility.
Instead, a few members of the interfaith group formed a small prayer circle in front of the detention center and read aloud the names of those they had hoped to visit. “After each name, we sang a refrain of ‘we’ll be back,’” said the Rev. Canon Jaime Edwards Acton, co-chair of the diocesan sanctuary task force, Episcopal Sacred Resistance.
The day began with high hopes as the group of about 60 clergy and laity boarded a bus at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul to make the 90-mile trek across the dusty desert to Adelanto. Along the way, they stopped for lunch and an orientation at St. Timothy’s Church in Apple Valley.
The trip was organized in conjunction with Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC, a nonprofit organization that encourages visitations with detainees, according to the Rev. Francisco Garcia, co-chair of the diocesan sanctuary task force.
We had nothing to hide,” added Garcia. He had planned to meet with Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, the Lincoln Heights father who was arrested in March by ICE agents after dropping off his daughter at school.
Earlier in the month, male asylum-seekers began a hunger strike to protest unhealthy and unsafe conditions at the for-profit facility, operated by GEO, the nation’s largest private prison company. Female asylum-seekers also joined the hunger strike.
Three detainees have died at the center within the past three months, according to a report published by Mother Jones.
“It’s disgusting,” said Sally David, a volunteer coordinator and vestry member at the Cathedral Congregation of St. Athanasius, who was among those not allowed to leave the bus in the triple digit heat. “Incarcerating people for money, for profit. It made us all want to go back again.”
Bobby Peppey, another St. Athanasius member who was also on the bus, echoed her frustration and concern. “Someone said we were activists, so they wouldn’t let us off the bus, or into the facility.”
Garcia and Edwards Acton were among a few group members allowed to disembark the bus, but said they were met by armed private guards and told the facility was on lockdown. At least one ICE agent was also present, they said.
Christina Fialho, CIVIC executive director and co-founder, said in an email obtained by the Episcopal News that the measures are part of an ongoing pattern of visitation denials the group has documented since 2013.
“In response to a peaceful five-minute interfaith prayer outside the facility, ICE and GEO Group then put the entire facility on lockdown,” according to Fialho, an attorney.
“Attorneys and family members who were not part of the pilgrimage and who had already been granted entrance to the facility were expelled from the facility by ICE and GEO Group … This included young children clinging to their toys who had driven for hours to visit their parents.”
She said nine men and more than 33 women joined the hunger strike at the facility “to protest substandard medical care, unjustly high immigration bonds, lack of basic respect, and lack of opportunities to connect with family.”
Edwards Acton, rector of St. Stephen’s, Hollywood, said the sole intention of the pilgrimage was to let detainees know “we were there to be present and to pray.”
Both he and Garcia said the refusal to allow them admittance has only strengthened the group’s resolve to return and to visit with detainees.
The Adelanto center has faced persistent accusations of poor conditions and insufficient medical care since it opened in 2011.
According to the Mother Jones report: In July 2015, 29 members of Congress sent a letter to ICE and federal inspectors requesting an investigation into health and safety concerns at the facility. They cited the 2012 death of Fernando Dominguez at the facility, saying it was the result of “egregious errors” by the center’s medical staff, who did not give him proper medical examinations or allow him to receive timely off-site treatment. In November 2015, 400 detainees began a hunger strike, demanding better medical and dental care along with other reforms.
Yet the city of Adelanto last year facilitated an agreement between ICE and GEO, to extend the company’s contract until 2021.
According to the report, California State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) has said the federal government guarantees GEO that a minimum of 975 immigrants will be held at the facility, and pays $111 per detainee per day.