Joan Anderson, of the Interfaith Alliance, sits after a meeting for the Rural Women’s Health Project. Photo by Caroline Nickerson.

A group of men and women from the Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice coordinates regular visits to undocumented immigrants detained at the Baker County Jail.

When Joan Anderson, a  member of the Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, first visited the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny, Fla., in January, she couldn’t help but notice the starkness of the yellow walls.

“It’s blank,” she recalled. “Everything is blank, sterile.”

She and five others who joined in the two-hour tour noticed even more. For one, as Paul Parker, another IAIJ member, observed: immigrants are treated like criminals.

“These are nonviolent, undocumented individuals who may [overstay] their visas,” he said, “who may have been picked up for any minor offense.”

The only time that the detained, undocumented immigrants get to glimpse sunlight is through a solitary window in the rec room, limited to one hour a day. They are granted no time outdoors, though after three months, they may be offered a transfer to another facility with outdoor recreation.

“They never get to see the sky,” Anderson said. “Your initial impression is this shroud of sadness and an aura of uncertainty that surrounds everything.”

Anderson and fellow IAIJ member Gladys Lane have this year started coordinating a growing group of volunteers, representing IAIJ and various member churches, to make regular visits to the Baker County Jail. They speak with men and women detained there while awaiting deportation hearings. The goal, Anderson said, is to provide a compassionate presence to people isolated from family and the outside world.

“We had the sense that a lot were really traumatized and fearful,” she said.

Because of this, Anderson said, simply being a benevolent presence is important, along with reassurance that they are not alone or forgotten.

When the first group of visitors arrived at the jail, they were given a preliminary tour followed by a one-hour visitation session with any detainees willing to sign up. Before they could do that, the visitors had to empty their pockets of everything: car keys, paper, pencils. Then the group split up, with the men visiting the 28 male detainees eight at a time, and the women attending to the lone two female detainees who signed up.

“They never get to see the sky,” Anderson said. “Your initial impression is this shroud of sadness and an aura of uncertainty that surrounds everything.”

“They’re allowed three hours a week of visitation,” Anderson said. “But the sad thing is, there’s no face-to-face visitation with their families and friends. It’s all through video, telecomm video.”

This is mostly due to where Baker County Jail is located, 55 miles outside of Gainesville and in a rural part of North Central Florida that lacks strong immigrant communities. This leaves the detained men and women isolated from family, friends and even people who understand their culture, only able to contact them for a limited time through phone or video chat.

The visitors met people from a variety of places, including Central America, Africa, Turkey, Israel and Palestine. Each story was different, but a common complaint was a lack of access to legal representation and uncertainty as to when they would be released. Though attorney numbers are posted throughout the facility, contact is difficult and phone time is limited, leading to, as Anderson commented, an aura of uncertainty.

A Palestinian man feared indefinite detention, as he was, by definition “stateless,” and had no home to return to. One woman Anderson spoke to said she no longer called her children because they weep when they hear her voice.  Parker said that access to legal representation appeared to be limited.

Joan pointed out that the facility itself did not receive any complaints. The Baker County Detention Center follows national regulations; the problems that plague the detainees are federal and systemic, she said, rather than caused by the facility itself.

Immigrant detention has become a business, Anderson said, with Congressional mandates requiring a 34,000 bed quota. According to Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, known as CIVIC, a national network of detention center visitation groups, corporations and counties make $164 per immigrant in detention per day. As a result, the quota creates a climate of fear, with immigrants being transported across the country without warning to satisfy these demands.

In the state of Florida, there are three detention centers for undocumented immigrants, with Baker County Jail being the closest to Gainesville. There are about 250 in the United States,  with now close to 40 established visiting groups making intentional visits to the detained. The group of IAIJ detention center visitors, which IAIJ leader Richard MacMaster affectionately dubbed the “Baker Interfaith Friends,” hopes to engage in two visits a month under the umbrella of CIVIC.

With more than 84 percent of immigrants lacking legal representation, the difficulties they have contacting their families, as well as the poor financial conditions, can keep a single immigrant in detention, sometimes shuffled from center to center, for years.

Immigrant detention has become a business, Anderson said, with Congressional mandates requiring a 34,000 bed quota…corporations and counties make $164 per immigrant in detention per day.

Last November, Pam Bondi signed the state onto a lawsuit contesting President Obama’s decision to extend the protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs, as well as his decision not to deport undocumented parents of citizens and legal residents.

In an official press release, her office argued that “this lawsuit is not about immigration,” and instead “about President Obama — yet again — overstepping the power granted to him by our United States Constitution.” Her critics argue that she ignored the best interests of the state to support a partisan cause, signing Florida on the suit with states like Arizona.

Noami Tsu, an attorney from the Southern Poverty Legal Center, acknowledged that striving towards human dignity and decency is imperative.

“We, as a country, are torn between the idea of everyone deserving human dignity and equal rights, and the idea of exploiting immigrants,” Tsu said. “We have a checkered history of treating people poorly.”

One of the IAIJ’s most recent projects, led by Sam Trickey, is to establish Gainesville as Florida’s first “Welcoming City.” If the initiative passes City Hall, Gainesville will be nationally and internationally recognized as a city that does not persecute immigrants and instead works for their success.

According to Trickey, Gainesville residents need to speak up about issues directly affecting undocumented immigrants. Improving immigration processes will benefit everyone.

“The people who aren’t being paid proper wages, farm workers and immigrants: These are not people of privilege,” he said. “The question comes — who is going to be their voice?”

But at the end of the day, said IAIJ member Sam Trickey, these visits are fueled by compassion.

“If I remain silent … I am complicit in injustice,” Trickey said. “I am besmirching the memory of my first father- and mother-in-law, immigrants from Mexico, and I simply cannot do that.”

The Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice meets at the Mennonite meeting house, 1236 NW 18th Avenue, 6 to 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month.  For more information, call 352-371-6772 or email gainesvilleiaij@gmail.com