Does anyone have a nice, big plastic bowl Armando can borrow? Well, keep. He might have trouble returning it.
Armando's old bowl has cracked from overuse, a consequence of his willingness to constantly loan it to other detainees. They'll pulverize Fritos, add hot water and knead the mix into masa for tamales, or soak Corn Nuts until they're the chewy consistency of hominy to make posole. But now the old bowl has had it.
Keeper of the bowl, however, is only one of Armando's self-appointed duties at GEO Group's Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center on Bakersfield's Golden State Avenue. He leads Bible studies and serves as guide-friend for a blind fellow detainee. And, like most of the nearly 400 prisoners at Mesa Verde, a private prison that contracts with the federal immigration enforcement agency, he closely monitors the progress of his asylum case.
He shares the updates with his wife and two children, who live in the north Bay Area, and with a group of Bakersfield residents who visit often to listen and encourage the detainees. They call themselves KWESI, or Kern Welcoming & Extending Solidarity to Immigrants. Members visit several times a week for an hour at a time.
Jeannie Parent, a Bakersfield College instructor, founded the group four years ago with a small group of church friends. One of their first connections at Mesa Verde was a native of Ghana named Kwesi Amuzu, who both validated the group's purpose and provided the seed for its name: "Thank you for visiting," he told Parent one day. "It makes me realize someone knows I exist."
Amuzu was eventually released by ICE and now lives in San Francisco, but incarceration of months, even years at a time, followed by deportation, is more the norm.
Eddy Laine, the retired former director of the Kern County Office on Aging, and later an elementary school teacher, is one of the most faithful of those friends. Armando — who asked that his last name not be used for fear of repercussions from the criminals from whom he seeks the safety of asylum — is among his regular visits.
Armando was raised in the Solano County community of Fairfield, but he spent his early youth in the central Mexico textile town of Moroleón, Guanajuato. His family left to escape violence: Cartel thugs, he says, cut off his cousin's hands and genitalia, and his brother was shot in the chest but survived.
"If I go back, I'm not going to make it," he told me on a recent visit. "Possibly my body will never be found. But I have faith. I have trust. That's all I've had since I've been here."
Armando has a checkered past — he has served time in state prison — but he had settled into a responsible job as a welder, and he and his wife, a medical device representative, were raising two high achieving teens when ICE picked him up two years ago.
Now he bides his time at Mesa Verde with a sketch pad, communion with God and as the eyes of a blind fellow detainee named Margarito.
His is one of dozens of stories KWESI members have heard, processed, and in many cases championed.
Parent, who teaches English for multi-lingual students at BC, says detainees with records have served their time; what they face now is something entirely different. Many, she said, have done things precisely the right way.
"There are women here," Parent said, "who came to a legal port of entry and asked for asylum. They did it the legal way — you must be on U.S. soil to ask for asylum. And that's exactly what they did. But here they are."
KWESI has been able to land a series of small grants from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to finance some of what they do.
"While (Mesa Verde) is still here," Parent wrote in one LIRS application, "we can at least make the lives of those imprisoned a little less lonely and a little more hopeful by offering solace.
"The act of visiting an immigrant in detention, accompanying them in their suffering, seeing their humanity, and expressing our love for them is a way to practice the values of ... churches in our community."
Churches that have been involved include the Unitarian Fellowship, which Parent attends, Emmanuel Lutheran, which Laine attends, and Wesley United Methodist.
"For me," Laine said, "it's a matter of faith. It's about welcoming those who need our love."
Martha Corcoran, who attends the United Methodist Church on Stockdale Highway, was at Mesa Verde on Tuesday to visit her detainee-friend Gabby. Meg Clay, who attends First Congregational Church on Real Road, arrived a few minutes later for her regular visit as well.
"I just want everyone to know that somebody cares about them in the United States," she said.
KWESI, which does not have a formal agreement with ICE, holds monthly meetings, with visitation trainings every two or three months (search for KWESI on Facebook).
The organization provides safe release services for many of the detainees who've won their cases or have been paroled. Volunteers pick them up at the immigration office, get them phones, clothing, hygiene kits, luggage and food, offer temporary housing and then take them to the bus station, train station or airport. Sometimes they pay for their tickets.
Since two detention facilities in Northern California were closed down in 2018, Parent noted, Bay Area immigration lawyers and non-profits have been counting on KWESI to continue its work and even scale things up.
Some of that work has broad ramifications, some of it less so. KWESI would like to see Mesa Verde institute a GED education program, which prisons in California and elsewhere offer as a basic service. They would also like Mesa Verde to reinstitute an art therapy program, which was discontinued after its funding elapsed; it's good for detainees' mental health and consequently helpful for prison safety and order.
Armando would like to toss out one other request, on behalf of himself and chefs in his dorm: Anyone have a large, plastic bowl he can borrow? Er, keep?