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Friends of Johnson County

Project Overview

A visitation program offering friendship to detained immigrants.

Identifying the Problem

Tens of thousands of immigrants are incarcerated in US immigrant detention centers. This massive and inhumane system is perpetuated by an arbitrary bed quota that states that at least 34,000 beds must be available for immigrant detention at any given time. This has been interpreted as a mandate to fill all of these beds, and leads to the separation of 440,000 immigrants from their families and communities each year. The system itself is highly privatized and politicized; nearly two thirds of immigrant detention facilities are operated by for-profit prison corporations that lobby on national immigration policy.

Bethany learned about immigrant detention while studying in Merida, Mexico during college, and later through her work with Kentucky Dreamers on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) clinics that protect immigrant youth from deportation. Upon returning from her Humanity in Action Fellowship in Copenhagen, immigration was in the news due to the large number of Central American asylum seekers – particularly unaccompanied children – fleeing to the southern border of the United States, as well as President Obama's executive action on immigration. The reactions in Texas were varied and controversial. The city of Dallas, Texas was considering providing shelter to a number of the unaccompanied migrant children, while Bethany’s home county just north of Dallas was attempting to pass a resolution preemptively banning the county from providing temporary shelter to these children. Bethany spoke out against this resolution at two city council meetings and rallied others to join in opposition. While the resolution ultimately passed, Bethany and her colleagues succeeded in removing much of the racial profiling and hateful language from the resolution.

Through her active opposition to the resolution, Bethany became plugged in to the local immigrant advocate community and attended an immigration symposium in Dallas. One of the panelists was a representative from the Hutto Visitation Program in Austin who shared powerful stories about refugee women in detention and the difference that a friendly visitor can make in breaking the isolation of detention. Immigrant visitation programs are a way to break the isolation of immigrant detention. Often, the families of people who are detained are unable to visit because they are undocumented or live far from the facility. Social visits can provide a link to the outside, and a way to recognize each person's worth in the midst of a dehumanizing system. Visitation programs also provide a way to monitor conditions and human rights violations that may happen in detention facilities, educate community volunteers about immigrant detention, and engage people in advocacy. 

The panelist mentioned that the Hutto Visitation Program had been looking to begin a visitation program at the Johnson County Detention Center in Cleburne, Texas. Bethany was immediately inspired to start coordinating with other interested people in Dallas to see how they could help create a visitation program in Cleburne.

Creating A Solution

Bethany began by speaking with staff at the Hutto Visitation Program and Grassroots Leadership in Austin, in order to identify some initial steps to establishing a visitation program. The staff recommended requesting a tour of the facility, which would allow Bethany and her colleagues to learn more about the immigrants detained there and pose questions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and facility staff. Bethany then researched the pros and cons of different types of visitation programs and read about how different programs operate and how they began. She learned a tremendous amount from the excellent resources prepared by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). She also researched the detention facility itself, and learned that it is a county jail operated by the for-profit prison corporation, LaSalle.

Bethany then facilitated a meeting with about 20 local advocates to discuss establishing a visitation program. She completed the appropriate paperwork and gathered information from advocates to request a tour of the facility and followed up with numerous rounds of phone calls and emails until the tour was finally scheduled. She and three other advocates completed the ICE-directed tour, which was attended by the ICE director from the Dallas field office as well as several other ICE and LaSalle officials.

Lessons Learned

Bethany encountered quite a bit of skepticism from facility officials about why she and her fellow advocates would want to organize a visitation program at Johnson County, where the majority of immigrants detained are men with some type of past criminal conviction. “While not unexpected,” says Bethany, “this attitude denies human dignity and ignores broader trends of over-policing and criminalization of communities of color. Because many immigrants in detention do not have criminal records, this is an issue that continues to divide the immigrant rights community.” She recognizes that providing visits to this type of facility will present unique challenges, but believes that the trainings and outreach will ultimately provide an opportunity to unravel the divisive "felons not families" narrative and instead recognize the systemic injustice of immigrant detention. She encourages others who face similar unique obstacles to be motivated - rather than deterred - by the challenge.

Get Involved!

The ICE-directed tour laid the groundwork for the establishment of a visitation program at the Johnson County Detention Center in Cleburne. Bethany and her colleagues are continuing to follow up with ICE officials to discuss establishing a visitation program at the Johnson County Detention Center. They have been communicating with local organizers who would like to take a leadership role in moving the conversation forward with the ICE Dallas field office. There are multiple local churches and organizations eager to organize volunteers for the visitation program, once established. If you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth or Austin area and are interested in getting involved, you can email tuff@grassrootsleadership.org. If you would like to plug into another immigrant visitation program, you can email CIVIC at info@endisolation.org.


So far, Bethany has not needed to raise any money for this project. She has only had to pay for gas to drive from the meetings to the facility, which she has paid for out-of-pocket.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2014

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