I sat in a small, sterile waiting room of the Adelanto immigrant detention center in the high desert northeast of Los Angeles last week, facing a little girl. She wore a purple dress and a floppy white bow clipped to her shiny brown hair. Her legs were too short to reach the ground.
I’d come with a church group to visit detainees - to lend them an ear, offer cheer and perhaps put money on their phone cards. The little girl had come with her stepdad, a skinny white guy who works as a software engineer, to see her mom.
The girl’s mom came to the United States from El Salvador as a teen, the stepdad told me. She was educated and married here, in California. She lived with her daughter and husband in Long Beach until two months ago, when she was pulled over while driving, discovered to be undocumented and carted away.
Adelanto is the largest immigration detention center in California and the largest privately run adult immigration detention center in the country. The facility can house nearly 2,000 people. It was in the news in late September, because the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General issued a “management alert” about it, flagging serious violations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s health and safety standards.
The report is a gory read, based on findings gathered during an unannounced visit that federal inspectors made to Adelanto in May. The inspectors found nooses fashioned from bedsheets hanging in 15 of the 20 cells they examined. They also reported that there had been one suicide and at least three suicide attempts by hanging at the center.
Adelanto sits at the end of a dirt road, far off any beaten path. Detainees are eligible for one hourlong visit per day, but the distance deters many. Despite Adelanto’s name, which means progress in Spanish, the wait once you arrive at the center can take hours.
The little girl and I sat looking at each other. I asked her age. She held up five fingers.
How many kids in her class? Ten fingers.
“But sometimes,” she said, folding down two fingers, “this many are gone.”
“So how many is that?” I asked.
She counted her fingers. “Ten?”
“Eight!” I said.
I showed her that game where you interlace your fingers, straighten two like a steeple, then flip your hands to show “the people.” We both tried the Vulcan salute. We balanced on one foot, then the other. She demonstrated a yoga pose she’d learned in class; I did one, too.
By the time we were called, we were deep into a game of “Sand and Snow,” jumping from tan floor tiles to white ones. We passed through two security doors to greet the undocumented immigrants we’d come to see.
“Immigrant” seemed the wrong word for my new friend’s mom, a perky 30-year-old with wavy hair and a huge smile. She swept up her little girl in an embrace.
It also seemed the wrong word for the woman I’d come to visit, a mother of two little girls, both under the age of 7. She hadn’t seen them in eight months.
A better word for these young women: parents.
As has been widely reported, our detention policies are creating de facto orphans out of children from otherwise close-knit families. Of course, it’s one thing to read that in the news, quite another to meet these children in person.
The women’s facility at Adelanto - long and low, practically windowless - sits next to a men’s federal prison. Both are owned and operated by Geo Group, which receives taxpayer funding for the detainees it houses. Outside, the Geo flag, with its globe logo, whipped in the desert wind, next to California and American flags.
You could hear the shouts of prisoners doing chin-ups and playing ball in the prison yard next door. The detained immigrants, who are not hardened criminals, have no recreational facilities, no skill-building classes.
After my hourlong visit, I got in my car for the two-hour drive out of the desert, toward the ocean.
Back home, with my own son tucked into bed, I could not sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would feel like: to see him just one hour a week, in a windowless group visiting room, before returning to a dorm-style prison.
We can and should support these parents and their now-parentless kids - by visiting, writing letters or offering legal help, spare rooms and games. Nonprofits like New Voice Immigration Assistance Service in Lynwood and Al Otro Lado in Los Angeles welcome volunteers.
But it’s not enough to play “Sand and Snow” for an hour on a Sunday. Kids need their parents every day.
Wendy Paris is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books.