Helping end isolation in detention one immigrant at a time

Bryana Lozoya, Reporter



Photo of KWESI’s full name.

The Kern Welcoming and Extending Solidarity to Immigrants (KWESI) is a nonprofit organization under the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kern County.

Their volunteers visit immigrants detained at the Mesa Verde detention facility in downtown Bakersfield.

Their goal is to end the isolation of immigrants in detention by visiting, providing emotional support, and advocate on their behalf.

They also donate clothes, backpacks, toiletries, provide temporary shelter, and sometimes bus or train tickets.

KWESI was founded by Jeannie Parent and Linda Haggerty in 2015 after an asylum seeker from Ghana named Kwesi, requested Parent to visit him.

At the time, Parent was on a list serve for the group Freedom for Immigrants. They are a national group with subgroups advocating for immigration reform and visiting detained immigrants.

Since visiting Kwesi and advocating on his behalf, members of KWESI regularly visited asylum seekers and other immigrants who awaited deportation hearings in Mesa Verde.

Signing up to volunteer for KWESI is easy, Parent had said. People can email or contact the group through Facebook messenger asking to sign up as a volunteer.

Some requirements for the volunteer process are training every few months and going with an experienced volunteer on their first visit to Mesa Verde.

Their training helps answer any questions volunteers may have, describe the guidelines Mesa Verde has, how to avoid burnout, and how to work with people.

The number of people volunteers could visit varied from time-to-time.

Parent mentioned that several years ago she would see two people at once or see one and then another on the same day back-to-back.

“Lately I have not been able to do that. I’ve asked to see two people, but they said only one visit,” Parent said of the detention facility’s limit on the number of people she could visit in a week.

“That is not the printed rule, it’s one visit per person in detention, … they can only have one visit per day, … they only get two days a week of visits,” she said.

Parent said the number of visits changed from time-to-time based off who was in charge at the time.

Although the number of visits has changed, Parent said the relationship between the group and facility has not been negative from what she knows, except the time where they would not allow her to visit a woman who was depressed and refusing to eat. She spoke to the woman’s lawyer for help and eventually managed to visit the woman.

Besides that, some difficulties volunteers run into when visiting immigrants in Mesa Verde is the language barrier and “compassion fatigue.”

Volunteers could become emotionally drained, overwhelmed, or shocked by hearing immigrants share their stories about the trauma they experienced in their lives.

Mesa Verde houses immigrants from many countries, but they have a large Spanish speaking population inside the detention center.

When a volunteer needs a translator, KWESI has several that can translate Spanish for them.

Although Mesa Verde holds a lot of Spanish speaking immigrants, there are some from different countries such as Africa or India, being held there.