For the last 14 months, Bakersfield resident Eddie Laine has visited a Guatemalan immigrant held in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility.
Laine is a retired public school teacher, who still works part time in the Teacher Education Department at Cal State Bakersfield.
Almost like clockwork, Laine has visited with a man in his 30’s, whom he requested not be identified because he worried about repercussions.
The two men discuss their families, and the man’s attempt to receive asylum in the United States, which he recently gave up.
Mostly, Laine tried to bring a sense of friendship to the man inside the detention facility.
“If we’re people of faith, we’re supposed to reach out a hand to those who are in need,” Laine said of the reasons why he visited the facility. “These are the least of these right here in our community.”
Laine belongs to a small group of local residents who visit detainees inside Mesa Verde. The group, called Kern Welcoming and Extending Solidarity to Immigrants, also houses and clothes detainees released from the facility who have been granted asylum, and need help making their way to family and friends located throughout the U.S.
Recently the group has stood in opposition to the rumored expansion of the facility.
In July, The Californian reported that the owner of The Bakersfield Dome was selling his property in order for the expansion of Mesa Verde.
Officials at Mesa Verde admitted to purchasing the property, but denied their intent to expand the detention center.
The warden of Mesa Verde did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The Bakersfield Dome was demolished in mid-October, leaving behind an empty lot.
Members of KWESI have asked the Bakersfield City Council to block any expansion of Mesa Verde.
“This is something that should weigh heavy on the hearts of Bakersfield,” Laine said. “You have 400 stories of sadness. People whose lives are being damaged by their time there. And the people who hope for a better life, those hopes are being snuffed out, largely.”
His friend from Guatemala was deported on Tuesday, after taking back his initial decision to give up seeking asylum.
It was too late to rescind the paperwork, Laine said.
“May God protect him,” Laine said in a text. “And have mercy on all who showed this kind and gentle soul no compassion.”
KWESI formed in 2015, following the reopening of Mesa Verde.
The Golden State Avenue facility had undergone a $10 million renovation, and transformed from a private prison into an ICE detention center operated by the private company GEO Group Inc.
The facility holds 400 detainees, who sleep in bunk beds in large dorm rooms. Members of KWESI said about a quarter of the detainees have either felony or misdemeanor charges and are in the process of being deported.
The rest, around 100 men and 100 women, are seeking asylum, and KWESI hopes to bring a small ray of human connection to that group into what can be a long and arduous process.
“Some of (the detainees) are there for two years,” said Linda Haggerty, co-founder of KWESI. “They are just waiting for their cases to be reviewed, just sitting there with nothing to do all day long.”
Haggerty, who retired in June from teaching sixth grade at Bakersfield City Schools, began visiting detainees at Mesa Verde in 2015 partly after learning that a new detention facility had opened in Bakersfield.
She had initially become interested in immigration issues after adopting two Guatemalan babies.
“I got my little babies when they were nine and ten months old,” she said, “and when I discovered the pathway to citizenship is unbelievable. There is no end of the line.”
Through a mutual acquaintance, she met Bakersfield College ESL Teacher Jeannie Parent, and they began visiting Mesa Verde together.
Parent was not able to comment for the story because she is recovering from surgery.
Soon after they met, Parent hosted a man from Ghana who had been granted asylum and released from Mesa Verde.
His name was Kwesi.
He told the pair he had escaped to the U.S. in order to avoid being persecuted because he was a Christian who belonged to a non-Christian tribe.
After Kwesi moved to the Bay Area with his immigration sponsor, Haggerty and Parent formed an acronym out of Kwesi’s name, and began spreading the word about their new group they had formed.
Many people they spoke with did not know a detention facility existed in Bakersfield, Haggery said, but once they found out, the group had success recruiting members to visit.
“We just started talking, and we started inviting people to come with us, and it just grew,” Haggerty said.
Their success surprised the retired teacher.
“People really do care. It’s amazing,” she said.
From a small group of around four, the group grew to around 10 regular visitors, with about 50 volunteers providing donations to help those who are released from the facility.
Local churches also provide support through donations.
Cassie Poe, who organizes monthly meetings for KWESI volunteers, estimated that up to four people are released each week from Mesa Verde.
KWESI provides clothing, hygiene products, a cell phone and a Greyhound bus ticket to those released from the detention center. Often, the released detainees also need a place to stay for up to a week before they can make plans to travel to the part of the country where their friends or family live.
KWESI volunteers host the detainees at their houses until they move on.
At the heart of KWESI’s work, are its members’ relationships to the detainees inside Mesa Verde. The group’s main focus is ending the sense of isolation detainees feel while waiting for their asylum cases to move through the system.
They sit and talk with the detainees, listening to their stories and sharing a few of their own.
“You get really close to them,” Poe said. “They kind of become your best friend.”
Although some volunteers have left the group, saying they need to take a break after hearing the emotional stories of how the detainees ended up in Mesa Verde, a fresh batch of volunteers always seems to take their place.
Haggerty doesn’t see KWESI stopping any time soon.
“I don’t think it’s going to fizzle out at all,” Haggerty said. “As long as Mesa Verde is there, people will want to help.”