A group of Cornell students have launched a campaign to free a Salvadoran woman in a detention center whom they befriended through a class focused on refugees and immigration.
The class, “Refugees and the Politics of Vulnerability: Intersections of Feminist Theory and Practice,” is taught by Jane Juffer, professor of English and feminist, gender and sexuality studies. Juffer met Ingrid Hernandez-Franco in 2019 when she and a group of students traveled to the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, N.Y. to work in-person with a number of asylum seekers there. This year, the class was only able to meet with detainees through video calls.
“What really impacted me was hearing Ingrid discuss her experiences as a queer detainee,” said Zasu Scott ’22. “She was fleeing violence (in San Salvador), came here to get away from this violence and we’ve detained her in a system that amplifies that violence” because of continued homophobia and discrimination Hernandez-Franco said she faces at the detention center.
Scott and the other students have started a petition on The Action Network, which has garnered nearly 1,000 signatures. They have also created a #FreeIngrid social media campaign and are encouraging supporters to spread their message in their own social media accounts and to send emails to representatives and immigration service officials. Letters that Hernandez-Franco has sent to Juffer and her students are available in a blog, which has received more than 350 visits in the past week.
“We have no doubt that this campaign will grow further once we share Ingrid's campaign across more social media platforms,” said Prameela Kottapalli ’23, who added that the students are asking for support from activists and influencers with large social media followings. “There is so much more we can do in terms of organization and advocacy, but we know that throughout history it has always been political action pushing policy that’s created tangible change.”
Juffer has taught this class since 2015, but added the visits to Batavia in 2019 thanks to an engaged curriculum grant from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives. That funding supported class projects, including renting a van to take students to visit with detainees.
Last fall, students got to know various refugees at the center, hearing their stories, learning about the situations in their countries and connecting them with other forms of support. Six students from that class continue to help the people they met, including Emma DiGiovanni ’21, who worked with an Angolan man who was eventually deported, but who stays in touch.
“In class, we talked a lot about how to advocate for other individuals without portraying them as vulnerable victims, but as people with their own voices and their own stories to tell,” DiGiovanni said, adding that the class allowed her to connect readings and feminist theory to real-life experiences.
This fall, the class connected to Hernandez-Franco through a video chat software called Getting Out. She told them of scary situations related to COVID in the detention center, the lack of soap and hand sanitizer and her frustration with not being able to communicate her needs. She speaks Spanish, but there are not always staff members available to translate.
“Sometimes it was hard for the students to hear Ingrid’s stories,” Juffer said. “It had a huge emotional impact on students to get to know someone who is going through that.”
Hernandez-Franco’s case is like many others, Juffer says. She’s been in detention for nearly two years and has been denied asylum, as well as her first round of appeals. She was also denied release on bond. She’s been waiting for 11 months to hear the results of her latest appeal, which could be her last.
Juffer and her students are working with Justice for Migrant Families, a Buffalo-based organization, and have created a Cornell chapter of the group. The organization provides support for people at the detention center, resources for families in the community and advocacy for changes in detention policies.
Juffer said that although many of the roughly 600 people detained at the Batavia center need support, taking one case at a time is at least a small way to chip away at larger problems in the immigration system.
“All of these people fled violence or extreme poverty in their country,” Juffer said. “Ingrid fears she could be sent back to a place where she could be killed.”
To connect with any of the student efforts, visit this Linktree page.