How jailing migrant children became an act of compassion for one Northern California community
This story was co-published with the Journal of Alta California.
By Patrick Michels
One Tuesday morning in June 2018, a Presbyterian minister named Mary Westfall took a seat in the Yolo County supervisors’ board room.
At a typical meeting of the Board of Supervisors, with the usual agenda of county contracts or land use concerns, the room’s 51 seats would have more than accommodated the turnout. But that day, the seats filled up quickly. People stood in the back holding banners, while others sat outside the room, listening to the action via overhead speakers. Westfall went to the meeting with a mission in mind: She was there to tell county leaders to get out of the business of locking up migrant children.
Over the previous decade, more than 600 children had been sent by the federal government to live there, in Woodland, California, usually for around two months at a time, until they were transferred to another facility or released to a family member. Dozens of shelters across the country had contracts to house children like these – minors who had crossed the border into the U.S. unaccompanied by a parent or guardian – but Yolo County’s was different. It was one of only three places that were holding children in the concrete cells of a juvenile detention center. These lockup facilities, which the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency that oversees the care of unaccompanied children, calls “secure placement,” are the highest-security settings in which the government houses migrant children. Minors are directed there if they have criminal records or are otherwise deemed to “pose a danger” to themselves or others. Federal officials decide on an individual basis just what that means.
Westfall had lived in the county for less than a year, and this was her first visit to the Board of Supervisors. She came to the meeting dressed in the conservative style of the clergy, with her dark blond hair short and her clerical collar peeking out beneath a black sweater. She’d worked with immigrant communities on the East Coast, and now in her new home, she’d found a new cause: holding federal officials accountable for detaining children, many of whom never had been charged with a crime and would be free if not for their immigration status. It seemed clear to Westfall what justice required the county to do. The board was going to vote on whether to back out of a three-year federal contract to house unaccompanied minors through Jan. 31, 2020.
Westfall sensed a special kind of energy in the room – the stakes were high, and the community had turned out in force. She watched as the day’s first speaker approached the podium.
Anoosh Jorjorian, a 46-year-old community organizer with a pair of sunglasses tucked into her dark hair, introduced herself to the board. She spoke gravely about the news she’d seen that morning on Twitter: that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries.
“Our federal institutions are attacking the principles our founders built this nation on, including liberty, due process and equal treatment under the law,” she said.
This was the summer of family separation, when U.S. immigration officials took 2,700 children from their parents – an official figure that probably undercounted the actual total – as part of a broader effort to deter migrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Across the country, people were organizing against local and state cooperation with the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement agenda.
For many activists, that cooperation included contracting with the federal government to house immigrants in local jails. Many communities were no longer willing to do that. Earlier that month, officials in neighboring Sacramento County had responded to activist pressure by ending a contract to hold federal immigration detainees in the county jail.
But inside the Yolo County supervisors’ board room, a different narrative unwound.
“At this time in history, I – who do not actually believe that these kids should be held in a juvenile detention facility – I am advocating for them to stay,” Jorjorian said. “Because there are ideals, and then there are the realities that we live with. … If these kids go, we don’t know where they’ll end up.”
After she spoke, other county residents cited more reasons for continuing to house migrant kids. “I’ve learned so much from these youth,” said one person who volunteered at the facility. “They’ve helped me a lot with my Spanish.”
Ending the contract would amount to little more than “thumbing our noses” at the federal government, another resident said. “We owe these kids our protection.”
Religious leaders and advocates for social justice spoke about the dangers of complicity and their duty to the children who slept on rented bunks in their county’s juvenile hall.
The detention facility provides a range of services, including education. At right, a youth’s room at the detention center is decorated with a mural painted by local college students. CREDIT: Courtesy of Yolo County
The secure facilities for unaccompanied minors, which previously had been seen as relatively uncontentious social service providers, had become targets of protest. Days before the Yolo County Board of Supervisors meeting, one of the three juvenile lockups, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., had announced it would end its contract with the government, following pressure from local activists. The third juvenile facility, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, was facing a lawsuit alleging that children were being physically abused by staff and strapped to a chair and forced to wear masks as punishment. The case had become a national controversy. Yolo County was the last remaining secure facility that wasn’t operating under a cloud of protest or scandal – and the county’s own probation chief recently had asked the supervisors to end the contract. He said the money wasn’t worth the risk to his staff, some of whom had been injured by the detained kids and were overworked.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement had been trying unsuccessfully to find more secure detention beds. Now it faced losing the few it had. No one knew what would follow if that happened. Would the government relent and release these kids to their families? Or would it find some other way to lock them up, perhaps even farther out of sight?
Finally, it was Westfall’s turn to speak. At the microphone, she introduced herself to the county officials and made her case.
“I rise to question the basic morality of incarcerating nonaccompanied minors who have not been convicted of a crime,” she said. “To support the detention of these juveniles makes us complicit with the state in a broken and unjust immigration system.”
It turned out Westfall was in the extreme minority.
Yes, there had been plenty of anger directed at the Trump administration. But to nearly everyone, the circumstances seemed to dictate that the only right thing to do was to keep the contract.
After the public testimony ended, Supervisor Don Saylor called for quiet, so everyone could sit with what they’d heard. “Gosh, I love you guys,” he told the room.
Then, with one supervisor abstaining, the board took a vote on whether to continue the county’s business with the federal government. Three supervisors were in favor; one was opposed. They would keep the contract.
‘Safe and welcoming’
Anoosh Jorjorian’s campaign to keep the minors housed in Yolo County began at the Davis farmers market, just after Trump’s election. A progressive activist since high school, Jorjorian recently had moved to Davis from Los Angeles and had been wondering how to make a difference in her new home. She spotted County Supervisor Don Saylor among the fruit stands and approached him to talk over some ideas.
Their conversation blossomed into an immigration-focused collaboration between activists and elected leaders, which they called Safe Yolo. The group drafted a “safe and welcoming community” resolution, which promised that the county would try to protect its residents’ private information from immigration authorities. Saylor presented the resolution to the board in March 2017, and it passed 5-0.
Between the Sacramento River and the Coast Ranges lie the neat rows of tomatoes, nut trees, grapevines and other crops that constitute most of Yolo County’s land. Nearly half of the county’s 219,000 residents are white, about 30 percent are Latino, 13 percent are of Asian descent, and nearly 3 percent are African American. Among the farmland are a few population centers, such as the university town of Davis, that swing the county’s politics to the left.
The Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility is on the eastern edge of Woodland, the county seat. Before 2005, Yolo County held dozens of juvenile detainees in an aging building constructed to hold only a dozen. Estimating that this population would continue to grow, county leaders built a facility with room for 90 minors. Instead, the number of detainees fell to seven, prompted by a statewide movement to reduce juvenile incarceration and a sharp drop in juvenile arrest rates. County leaders decided to rent out the extra bed space – first to other counties in California, then, in 2008, to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The contract has brought in more than $28 million to date. County officials say the deal doesn’t generate profits – a recent state audit showed that the county actually had underbilled the government by $700,000 during the previous fiscal year – but it pays the salaries of around 30 employees.
For the federal government, it was a lifeline. The refugee agency has no shelters of its own for migrant children and typically places them with nonprofit social service groups. For more secure arrangements – for children who have committed a crime or are considered too dangerous to house in shelters – the government has come to rely on county juvenile lockups. At least 13 local government agencies across the country had a contract to house migrant children at some point in the past 15 years. Most dropped out, but not Yolo County.
Local volunteers began visiting migrant children shortly after they first arrived in the Yolo lockup. Each week, visitors would pass through the thick security doors, enter a common room and spend a few hours of conversation and recreation with the detained kids.
“We just talk and play games. We don’t do much of anything,” says Alison Pease, who has volunteered at the detention facility for more than a decade as part of the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network. A couple of times, they booked a mariachi band to perform. Hers is the largest group of volunteers, but others come to read stories to children, lead dance workouts or give lessons in meditation or yoga. In 2014, student volunteers from the UC Davis Chicana and Chicano Studies Department decorated the inside of the detention center with murals.
“When I got here, I thought, ‘This looks like a jail. We need to lighten this up,’ ” Yolo County probation chief Brent Cardall said when the murals were done. “That’s why we did this. We wanted to give them hope.”
The nearby university offers the detained children another benefit: the Immigration Law Clinic at the UC Davis School of Law. Professors and students meet with children, connect them with pro bono representation for their immigration cases and sometimes fight to get them out of detention. The law clinic represented a 16-year-old boy from El Salvador who spent more than 21 months in custody and a 14-year-old Honduran boy who spent nearly a year in the facility even after having been granted asylum. With the clinic’s help, both eventually were released. Other local lawyers have represented children who alleged that they had been abused by staff or deprived of mental health treatment.
Despite those complaints, as the detention facility’s relationship with the federal government became uncertain in early 2018, volunteers from the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network remained adamant that it would be irresponsible to send the children away to a less caring community or a facility with lower standards.
Jorjorian and Saylor came to agree with them. “I cannot take the ideological step of saying we cannot be complicit in this,” Jorjorian said. She decided to rally support for continuing the detention contract when it came up before the board.
In fall 2018, months after the Board of Supervisors decided to keep the contract, students from Cal State Sacramento visited the detention center to see what this local intervention in immigration policy looked like. Beatriz Figueroa, a sociology major who organized the visit, says that when they arrived, officers told them not to interact with the kids, unlike the volunteers. This was difficult for her.
“These kids look like my neighbors, my cousins,” said Figueroa, who is 23. After the college students had walked the cell block, toured a classroom and heard about the local volunteer programs, the mood abruptly changed.
“These youth were yelling at us,” Figueroa recalled, “and telling us that the security guards abuse them and give them bruises. And the security guards say, ‘Oh no, they’re just joking.’ ”
As the closing moments of the visit settled in Figueroa’s head, she says, she was struck by one of the murals done by the UC Davis students. Painted on a cinder block wall, the floor-to-ceiling scene depicted children in uniforms and chains trying to scale a crumbling brick wall, above which stretched a vista of farms and mountains. Near the ceiling, a fiery sunset glowed next to a row of small windows to the outside world.
Figueroa realized that there was only so much about life in this place that you could learn from a tour. “How do we know what happens behind closed doors?” she wondered.
Behind the locked doors of the facility were kids such as B.D., a 16-year-old boy referred to in court only by his full initials, B.D.A.C., because he is a minor. He, his two adult sisters and their families had crossed the southern border in December 2017 after a journey from Guatemala City, where B.D. had grown up surrounded by danger. He’d endured physical violence by his father, sexual abuse by a family friend and a gang kidnapping for ransom. He hoped to reunite with his mother, who had fled Guatemala alone a few years earlier and lived near Cincinnati.
B.D.’s group was apprehended shortly after crossing. Despite the presence of his sisters, officials classified the boy as “unaccompanied” and sent him to Casa Padre, a former Walmart in South Texas that had been turned into a low-security shelter. According to Office of Refugee Resettlement records, B.D., isolated in the massive facility, told someone that he was a member of the Mara 18 gang and had a criminal record back home. That was all agency officials needed to hear to send him to the secure lockup near Washington, D.C. Under the Trump administration, allegations of gang affiliation were enough to land an unaccompanied minor in juvenile detention, even if the child had committed no crime. (The policy has since changed; alleged gang membership now qualifies minors for a second tier of facilities, which the government calls “staff-secure.”) Inside, B.D. mentioned having suicidal thoughts and was prescribed psychotropic medications. After a seven-month stay in the Virginia facility, he was transferred again, without explanation. In July 2018, he arrived in Yolo County, a month after the board decided to continue the contract.
“At this moment, I am in a jail in California,” B.D. wrote in a statement from the detention center, as part of a lawsuit to get him released. “I do not like being here. My room has a locked door. We spend many hours in our rooms with the doors locked. Each day, we spend one hour and no more outside where we play basketball. Sometimes there are fights between the boys as they play. There are also fights inside the building. The food is bad and I do not like it.”
In lawsuits, other children have complained about the conditions inside, in particular the use of pepper spray and physical restraint. “Yolo was also a horrible place,” one complainant told the court.
“I feel desperate,” another Yolo detainee said. “My only wish is to leave detention, live with my mom, and study.”
Photographs from Francisco Dominguez’s collection of work document immigration. Dominguez opposes the county’s decision to hold migrant children at the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center. “They don’t belong in a jail,” he said. “They need to be in transitional housing, a school, but that’s the wrong place for them.” CREDIT: Emily Harger for Reveal
In February, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra released a review of immigrant detention centers across the state, including Yolo County’s. The report described a facility run by thoughtful, concerned officials that nonetheless was a troubling place for children to be. Inspectors interviewed 19 children in the facility; nine reported having attempted suicide or cutting themselves during their time there.
Last summer, the county negotiated more money from the Office of Refugee Resettlement as a condition of its continuing to house migrant children, an increase from around $3 million to $6 million a year. The detention center’s current program director, Julie Burns, says she’s using that new funding to hire more mental health support and set an example for facilities elsewhere. She says that includes pushing back against the federal government when it tries to send them children who shouldn’t be locked up.
“If we are going to do this, we are going to do right by the kids. We’re not going to have kids languishing in secure care without the resources they need,” she said. “We are really focusing on treatment and servicing, and we have an opportunity to do a model program.”
“We think we can make a difference, as foolish as that might sound,” said County Supervisor Don Saylor. “And I realize it sounds a little bit dissonant to the rest of our value system, but it’s actually quite consistent. We’re doing a rather unusual thing here. We’re trying to influence the lives of these unfortunate immigrants through a program that would not be our first choice for them.”
“Sometimes just walking away from a sticky situation is easier than trying to deal with the ambiguities and problems in a more nuanced way,” said Alison Pease, the detention center volunteer.
But critics of the contract are rallying opposition for another fight. Francisco Dominguez, a local radio host, says well-meaning people in Yolo County are fooling themselves by thinking “they can go visit them and take cookies and take books (and) somehow they’re making their lives better.”
“It was very much white privilege (to think) that somehow the good European American citizens of Yolo County know what’s best for these brown, Native American kids from Central America,” Dominguez said.
“This is the biggest division (within) the immigrants’ rights community today. (It) is about these site fights,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, an immigration lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia. “There are those who say, ‘No, if we close these local facilities, all that’s going to do is accelerate the transfer of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) detainees to these massive Texas border facilities.’ The other camp says, ‘No, we have to, first of all, fight in our home communities.’ ”
Sandoval-Moshenberg contributed to the opposition to the juvenile detention contract in the D.C. suburbs and doesn’t have much sympathy for the argument that prevailed in Yolo County. “It takes a hell of a savior complex to really believe that a kid in your jail is better off than being with his family,” he said.
Lately, Dominguez has been pushing local advocacy groups to mount a stronger opposition before county leaders and to protest outside board meetings. He wants to see them follow the example of activists in Yuba County, north of Sacramento, who continue to protest the county jail’s contract with ICE, and in the High Desert city of Adelanto, which ended its partnership with a private ICE detention center in March.
They’ll have their chance sooner than they expected. Yolo County’s new chief probation officer recently proposed repurposing the juvenile detention facility, given the falling population of local youth held there. The Board of Supervisors scheduled a vote Tuesday to consider the plan. A yes vote by the board would end the Office of Refugee Resettlement contract, and the detention center would cease housing unaccompanied migrant children as early as July.
Either side of the debate could find validation in B.D.’s story. His statement from inside suggests the toll of indefinite detention far from his family. But he ended up receiving free legal help from a San Francisco attorney who realized he never should have been detained, because agency records contained no evidence that he was a gang member. That resource, which might have been unattainable in a more remote, less supportive area, did finally get him released to his mother in November.
These are some of the questions that divide people in the current era of immigration enforcement: How long do you stay inside a harmful system to try to make it better? When is the only moral choice to walk away? Is it possible to help children while holding them in a cell? The answers Yolo County settled on: A little longer. Not yet. We hope so.