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Robin Valenzuela: Assistance to Immigrants in Detention

by | Sep 2, 2022 | Changemaker Of The Week

Robin Valenzuela had spent years researching the intersection of child welfare and immigration enforcement in the U.S. when, in 2016, the election prompted her to take action. “I wanted to do something more than just write about these issues,” she recalls. She started volunteering with Freedom for Immigrants, a national organization that soon connected her with other immigration advocates in Indiana, where she was based. Together, Robin and her fellow Hoosiers joined forces to create Indiana Assistance to Immigrants in Detention (Indiana AID).

Indiana AID is dedicated to providing material, emotional, and/or spiritual support to immigrants who have been detained by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in regional jails. Volunteers have virtual visits with immigrant partners detained in the Clay County jail using the jail’s video chat system, Securus. On these calls, volunteers check in, offer information, and seek to better understand the needs of the individuals they are serving. “The first thing people will tell us is that they’re hungry because they’re not getting enough food,” Robin explains. Indiana AID offers financial assistance so that detained immigrants can access food at the Tiger Commissary, the jail’s small and overpriced store, as well as money to use the jail’s email system. The organization plans to use their recent grant from The Pollination Project to support these services, along with their book purchasing program.

Indiana AID serves immigrants who are held in jails that are not designed for long-term detention, so there’s no programming available for detained individuals. “There’s no work for them to do, no recreation. Some people have literally not seen the sun for months.” The organization orders books at the request of the immigrants to help ease the monotony. They also offer connections to legal resources on the outside and share whatever case information they can with those in detention. “ICE tells them nothing, so whatever information we can give them so they know what’s going on is really useful. It goes a long way.”

These actions can feel like small steps in the face of such a complex and dehumanizing system. As Robin explains, “Detaining immigrants is a revenue stream for the county, Securus, and Tiger Commissary, who are just making money hand over fist. It’s an industry that makes money off of people who are desperate, traumatized. We have a lot of asylum seekers in the jail who have experienced a lot of trauma and this is a completely different type of trauma on top of everything else.” Having gained perspective from her work with Indiana AID, Robin can see how an unjust system like this perpetuates: “Each individual is like ‘I’m just doing my job and my job doesn’t harm people,’ but the system at large harms people.”

This knowledge – difficult though it is – is also motivating. Robin hopes that Indiana AID will continue to grow, eventually expanding regionally so that no matter where immigrants are transferred, someone is there for them. She is especially moved by the growing group of individuals who have joined Indiana AID after being detained themselves. “Formerly detained individuals can provide great insights into what needs to be done.” The organization plans to begin sharing the stories of detained individuals in their own words through a newsletter. The newsletter will give these immigrants a voice and bring the reality of the jail’s conditions to the public.

For Robin, challenging this dehumanizing system has only strengthened her resolve. “I feel more responsibility to stay [in Indiana] and nurture this group and nurture this effort – to combat the powers that be. To show Clay County, Indiana, ICE, and the Midwest that they can’t just go to a small rural town and set up shop and feel no resistance. There are a lot of people in the Midwest who see immigrants as valuable and important community members.”

To learn more about Indiana AID or become a volunteer, please visit their website https://www.indianaaid.org/

Written by Amelia Lorrey