Letters can help people in immigration detention cope with isolation and stress, including the stresses of what they experienced in their home countries (violence, war, trafficking, etc.) as well as the stresses of not knowing when their detention will end.  Your letters can affirm an individual’s humanity in the midst of dehumanization.  You will also learn a great deal about the realities our fellow humans are facing and how our country is responding.

How it works:

Otay Allies is coordinating mail centrally to provide the most secure communications possible for asylum seekers and allies.  All mail sent to detained refugees must be addressed with the detainees “Alien Number” or “A-Number,” an essential element of their legal case; we want to make sure this number does not circulate, so we will not provide it to allies.  We will provide you with the first name and last initials of the detainee.

  • Draft your letter in a document.
  • If you do not know Spanish, use Google Translate (translate.google.com) to translate into Spanish.
  • Copy and paste your letter into the body of an email to otayallies@gmail.com.  Please put “TO OTAY” and the first name and last initial of the individual you are writing in the subject line.  (Eg., TO OTAY Roberto D.)
  • We will print and address the letter to the detainee and send it from our P.O. Box with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE).
  • When we receive replies, we will scan and email them to you.

 

When you write, DO the following:

  • Introduce yourself as a member of a group of local citizens concerned about asylum seeking detainees.
  • Emphasize that you are not there to offer legal counsel or any other kind of professional services.
  • Tell the individual that you do not believe asylum seekers should be held in detention.
  • Ask if they have access to the news and if they would like Spanish-language news sent.  It is being reported that detainees at Port Isabel do not have access to news (https://theintercept.com/2018/07/03/kirstjen-nielsen-family-separation-texas-detention-visit/)
  • Tell your story, share your interests, and invite them to share their story as well.  You can also include photos or art (5x7 or smaller, no glitter, oil paint or stickers), Spanish-language news clippings, poems, or inspirational materials.
  • Ask if there are parts of their story and experience they would like to to share with others/publically and reiterate that you will do so using only a first name and country of origin and no other identifying information (or whatever level of disclosure they are comfortable with).
  • Ask if they would like information about pro bono legal services or pro se (for yourself) legal information.
  • Ask about conditions inside the facility, including visits, phone access, medical care, food, and staff.
  • Keep good boundaries to protect both the asylum seeker and yourself.  Use our P.O. Box to communicate and our PayPal account to provide commissary / phone funds.  We do not recommend engaging financially beyond monthly commissary / phone contributions, or getting involved in the legal details of a case.  
  • Provide encouragement, and even diversion.  It helps affirm a detainees humanity to have the chance to discuss things they enjoy--including sports, art, food, music, and so forth.
  • Ask if there is anyone else they know in detention who would like to receive letters.  If you receive names, please send them to otayallies@gmail.com.

 

DO NOT

  • Pry into the details or backgrounds of their case, or traumatic events they may have experienced.
  • Initiate a conversation about your own religious beliefs, though it is good to be receptive to and supportive of their expressions of belief.
  • Volunteer your home address, phone number, or other highly personal information.

A FEW REMINDERS

  • If a refugee is deported, you will be assigned a new detainee.  
  • Not all detainees are able to write back due to extreme stress or indigence.  But we know letters are getting inside. Please keep sending them.