Bev Huff had never thought much about immigration, only what she read in newspapers or heard on TV.
"I could see both sides of it," the Lake Forest resident said. "It wasn't an issue I had decided on."
Her level of interest changed when she and a group of women from her church started offering social visits to immigrant detainees at the James A. Musick Facility, a minimum-security county jail in Irvine under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold 300-plus immigrant detainees.
"We were just visiting, not offering legal opinions, not doing social work," Huff said. "There's a whole laundry list of things we weren't doing."
But as Huff quickly realized, simply lending a sympathetic ear to immigrants and asylum-seekers — many of whom had been in custody for months or years awaiting an immigration hearing — was transformative.
"Every one of us got hooked really quickly," Huff said. "All of the detainees we visited were so happy to have someone on the outside know that they exist."
The first detainee she visited was a woman from El Salvador who had come to the United States at 16 to care for her grandmother. She lived in Orange County for years and married an American man. But one night after getting into a fight, she was taken into custody, and she eventually spent two years at Musick in detention. During that time, her husband committed suicide.
"It changed my view of immigration 180 degrees," Huff said. "Because it's not about immigration, it's about people. That's the difference."
From these initial visits in 2012, Huff and the other volunteer visitors formed the nonprofit Friends of Orange County Detainees, which operates out of Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Mission Viejo, to offer ICE-approved social visits to the county's approximately 1,000 immigrant detainees held at Musick, the Santa Ana Jail and Theo Lacy Facility in Orange.
With about 50 volunteers representing a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds, FOCD made more than 1,250 visits last year and is on track to reach even more immigrant detainees this year.
"It takes the politics out of the whole issue," Huff said. "You can advocate for immigration reform or not, but this is a humanitarian issue."
These visits can be a lifeline for detainees.
"It gives your soul back to you," said a 29-year-old man from Ghana, who was detained for more than a year at Theo Lacy and Musick. "Somebody knows that you exist. You have someone to tell your problems to, what's disturbing you, what you've been through. It's good to have a visit in this kind of situation, because so many of us haven't been in detention before."
Sheryl Hagen, a Lake Forest resident and member of FOCD's leadership team, had been visiting the man, who asked that his name not be used because of continuing fears of deportation, for a year when he became eligible for release. This sparked an internal discussion over the types of assistance detainees would need after they left detention and the ways the nonprofit could help.
Hagen picked the man up from Musick and immediately gave him a cellphone so he could call his family.
"All I could hear him saying was, 'Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry,'" Hagen said. "They really had no idea where he was, what the situation was, if he was alive or if he was dead."
Now FOCD has formalized these services and others, primarily for asylum-seekers, a segment that the group considers particularly vulnerable. The group has a "call schedule" so that a volunteer is always available to pick up detainees from jail. Upon release, detainees get a packet of fresh clothes, toiletries and a pre-paid cellphone.
Hagen's garage is now filled with piles of clothes, shoes and bags donated from the community, carefully sorted by size and gender, ready to be redistributed.
A partnership with the Salvation Army's Hospitality House in Santa Ana offers detainees temporary shelter until they've made permanent arrangements, and several FOCD board members also house detainees in their own homes.
Peggy Thompson of Irvine, for example, has taken in about a dozen former detainees — mostly transgender women — in the past year and a half that she's been working with FOCD. The Santa Ana Jail has one of the country's few detention facilities dedicated to LGBT women, but the region has no shelters for transgender women, often leaving them with no place to go after release.
Some FOCD board members also obtained Board of Immigration Appeals, or BIA, accreditation, which gives them status similar to that of a paralegal, allowing them to complete some legal documents, applications and work permits.
While immigration reform remains a heated topic in political discourse, FOCD has intentionally avoided taking sides or positioning itself as a political activist organization. Instead, members frame their work as humanitarian, always focused on the individual people they're serving.
"On any given day there are roughly 1,000 people in immigrant detention in Orange County, and 400 that have signed the list asking for a visit," Thompson said. "Right now we have about 50 active volunteers, so we're only getting to about 25% of the people who sign up. We just can't get to everybody, and it's so sad to think that for every person we get to, there are three others waiting.
"We're not social workers, we're not attorneys, and I can't help you with your bond or legal fees because we don't have a lot of money," she said. "But I can be your friend and I'm interested to hear your story. I can visit and we can get to know each other."