Project Improve Aims to Make the Best of a Bad Situation with Illegal Immigrant Detainees
No matter how you feel about the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S. you have to sympathize with parents whose only crime is living here without proper documentation who have the misfortune of being arrested and then detained in jail, all while awaiting deportation, and in the meantime finding themselves separated from family, including children. We’re not talking about identity theives. We’re talking about people holding down jobs and raising families and abiding by laws except for that murky no-man’s land called a border they breeched. For years the nation looked the other way at what was essentially an open border but now it’s intent on closing that border and throwing back over it anyone who’s managed to cross it illegally, even those who’ve made productive lives for themselves and their families in America. It’s cruel and unusual punishment that only adds to social disruption and incurs extra costs without really solving anything. It’s purely a power play by the haves against the have-nots. This is a story about a small program through the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that offers Spanish-speaking detainees some educational support services during their incarceration and that tries to provide a platform for parents to connect with their children.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
With immigration enforcement a national priority, jails are filled with individuals whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally.
Out of sight, out of mind behind bars these civil offenders risk being lumped in with the habitually criminalized. Advocates say it’s all too easy to forget many detainees have been law-abiding, gainfully-employed residents. Many are parents. Once arrested and jailed they face separation from loved ones and home.
Being severed from family while the legal process drags on poses challenges the criminal justice and penal system are not necessarily well prepared to address without expert intervention.
With no programs serving its growing population of Spanish-speaking detainees, Douglas County Department of Correction officials asked the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help in early 2009. OLLAS met with staff and detainees as a first step in creating a detainee-centered program.
Claudia Garcia, a UNO assistant professor of foreign languages, says she and university colleagues attended jail orientation and conducted two focus-groups with detainees in spring 2009 in order to assess concerns and needs.
“The situation of women, many terribly depressed because of being separated from their young children, was especially pressing for some jail authorities, who were sympathetic to these detainees’ situation,” says Garcia.
Beginning in the summer of 2009 OLLAS faculty launched Project Improve as a community service initiative at the Douglas County Correctional Center, 710 South 17th Street. The effort is focused on helping detainees discuss their predicament, connect with family and become empowered through education. The intent is to provide clients a non-punitive advocacy and support outlet.
Faculty engage detainees in writing, reading and discussion activities designed to promote introspection and self-expression. Garcia says on average 16 men and 11 women participate per session.
“Personally, what strikes me the most about the Latino detainees, especially the women, is their strength and good attitude, and also their ability to give each other support,” Garcia says. “I think we provide a space that allows them to reflect, process and articulate their personal journeys.”
OLLAS director Lourdes Gouevia says, “The inmates express their stories through various media and record messages and stories for their children.” UNO assistant professor of education Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni says participants appreciate the opportunity to respectfully own their own experience: “This is a time for them to have an avenue to be themselves. They’ve told us we treat them with dignity, we treat them like human beings, we don’t look at them like they’re incarcerated.”
The experience has made an impression on the academics.
“It’s been a very intense and enriching learning process,” says Garcia, adding that it’s “one thing is to have an intellectual knowledge” of these issues “but it’s very different to talk, interact and become emotionally affected by the individuals going through these hard times. For me, the big eye-opener is the definition of criminal. Many detainees we work with have violated immigration law, but they are certainly not dangerous criminals. Most are just mothers and fathers who have tried their best to give their families a better life, and have been working without proper documentation.
“Most who come to our sessions are really engaged in a process of self-growth, using this time in jail to re-visit their own lives. They appreciate the opportunity to learn and be better people when they get out. It’s really a very moving experience.”
Brignoni says “it saddens us” that most of the detainees are presumably awaiting deportation. “We get a new group all the time because they don’t stay there.”
After a prolonged break, the project is presuming monthly sessions in December,
Garcia is impressed by DCDC’s embrace of Project Improve.
“It’s been a very welcoming institution. DCDC understands the importance of educational and support programs for their detainee population, and are very proud to have a diversity of volunteers go there and share time and knowledge with the detainees. The officers in charge of educational programs are very helpful and very clear.”
- Hundreds Attend OLLAS Conference Cumbre to Give and Get Diverse Perspectives on Migration Issues (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO/OLLAS Resident Expert on Cuban and Latino Matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- New Sentencing Project report highlights for-profit detention in the federal system (sentencing.typepad.com)
- A Spiteful New Policy at Guantánamo Bay (nytimes.com)
- ACLU Sues ICE for Shackling Immigrants in Court (newamericamedia.org)
- Federal Government Increases Use of Private Detention Centers, Group Finds (acslaw.org)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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