Christina Fialho
Ashoka Fellow since 2016   |   United States

Christina Fialho

Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)
Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) is the only detention visitation network in the country monitoring the human rights abuses faced by thousands of immigrants held by…
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Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)
This description of Christina Fialho's work was prepared when Christina Fialho was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) is the only detention visitation network in the country monitoring the human rights abuses faced by thousands of immigrants held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). CIVIC has created a community-based alternative to detention that welcomes immigrants into the social fabric of the United States, instead of incarcerating individuals in the nation’s prison system.

The New Idea

Thousands of immigrants are exposed to human rights abuses in the United States’ immigration detention system, the largest in the world. Undocumented individuals, documented individuals, and asylum seekers face the threat of deportation and abuse in immigration facilities. Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) has identified that the rise of immigration detention is connected to the rise of the private prison industry, which profits off of each additional body that is apprehended. Each day, 34,000 individuals are detained in U.S. jails and detention centers, some for several years, due to a congressionally mandated quota that requires the government to maintain 34,000 immigration detention beds and creates local incentives to ensure these beds are filled. CIVIC, which was co-founded by Christina Fialho and Christina Mansfield, aims to stop the human rights abuse in detention centers by defunding the U.S. immigration detention system.

CIVIC’s strategy is two-fold. First, CIVIC’s network of 1,400 volunteers acts as a watchdog, connecting personally to those detained, and using their stories to check the abuse of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by educating municipal legislatures and then, changing policy. CIVIC’s 1,400 volunteers are each part of independently-run community groups that regularly visit 43 of the largest detention facilities in 19 states. CIVIC also hosts a national hotline that is available to individuals in all 210 detention centers around the nation. CIVIC volunteers come from diverse communities and all faith groups. CIVIC engages people who were formerly in immigration detention as well as individuals from traditionally conservative backgrounds, who now make up a large percentage of their active, bi-partisan volunteer network.

At the same time, CIVIC is building an alternative system to traditional immigration detention that is more effective and less expensive than the status quo. CIVIC has created a demonstration model for a more humane way to assist immigrants that is run by community groups, inspired - in part - by the federal Refugee Resettlement Program. Over the last year and a half, volunteers have secured the safe release of 284 asylum seekers, and CIVIC is now expanding on the scope of its demonstration model by engaging local and federal governments in supporting a community-based alternative to detention that replaces immigration detention beds with holistic community support for all immigrants, eventually capping (and then eliminating) the number of people in immigration detention. With careful data tracking, CIVIC is proving that this new model is less expensive than immigration detention, and also leads to more successful outcomes.

[1] “Immigration Detention 101.” Detention Watch Network. Detention Watch Network. Web. April 8 2016. <>

The Problem

Immigration detention is the government practice of imprisoning human beings while they wait for a decision on their immigration status or future deportation. Those detained include undocumented individuals, lawful permanent residents, the parents of US citizen children, asylum seekers, torture victims, and individuals who have been trafficked. Detention as a tool to control unauthorized migration does not adhere to international human rights law, with the US immigration detention system exposing hundreds of thousands of immigrants to human rights violations every year.

The majority of Americans, including those working in the field of immigrant rights, are generally unaware of the systems, infrastructure and policies that underlie immigration detention. Until 2012, the Department of Homeland Security would not release the names or locations of the 210 detention centers across the country, rendering this problem invisible. Even to this day, the government only lists a fraction of these detention facilities on its website. Due to the complexities and lack of transparency around immigration detention, very few citizen sector organizations are equipped to work within or outside of this system to change it. And due to the length of cases of immigrants in detention and the remote location of the facilities, pro-bono lawyers are less likely to take on these cases.

The existence of the U.S. immigration detention system is relatively new. In the early 1980s, fewer than 30 people were held in detention on any given day. But in the 1980s, two corporations (private prison groups Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America) successfully lobbied the government to expand detention, a clear example of the Department of Homeland Security’s reliance on the private prisons and proof that immigration detention is deeply tied to the incarceration system. Today, US taxpayers “maintain” 34,000 beds at a cost of $5.6 million per day in Geo Group and CCA prisons as well as municipal jails, all of which get filled.

President Clinton passed two laws in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), that allowed the United States to increase detention indefinitely, deport lawful permanent residents, require victims of persecution abroad to be detained immediately, while also taking away the discretion from judges to release many immigrants. These laws remain in effect, with immigrants also unable to access a court-appointed attorney, a free phone call, or a speedy trial. Human rights violations have led to 155 reported deaths in immigration detention since 2003.

The United States’ immigration detention system has influenced the infrastructure of detention systems in other countries, including those in Europe and Latin America. By changing the ways that immigrants are treated here, the United States can set an example for how to uphold the human rights and dignities of individuals, especially during a time of increased migration from North African and Middle Eastern countries.

[2] Ibid, “What is Detention?” International Detention Coalition. International Detention Coalition. Web. April 8 2016. <>
[3] “USA: Jailed Without Justice.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International. Web. April 8 2016 <>
[4] ibid.
[5] "The Math of Immigration Detention." National Immigration Forum. National Immigration Forum. Web. October 10 2016. <>
[6] “Analysis of Immigration Detention Policies.” ACLU. ACLU. Web. April 8 2016 <>
[7] "Immigration Detention 101."

The Strategy

Christina’s insight is that detention is an opaque industry that does not treat immigrants in a manner that reflects the values of the United States. With no citizen oversight on detention, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not held to maintaining the dignity and human rights of those it apprehends. Christina’s two approaches to address this issue are complementary. First, CIVIC mobilizes a network of watchdog community members that uncovers and tracks the abuses experienced by those detained by ICE, shedding light in a consistent manner for the first time on this hidden system. Next, CIVIC creates an alternative model for detention that is more effective and humane than incarceration.

CIVIC’s national hotline and network of visitation programs turn volunteers and directly impacted individuals into empathetic and trained advocates at the helm of immigration reform. Christina co-created her first visitation program at the West Country Detention Facility in Northern California, which has some of the most restrictive policies around visitation, during her second year of law school. Today, CIVIC operates in 43 detention facilities in the United States, carefully selected for the high volume of immigrants detained daily in each. Due to a Visitation Directive that Christina fought with others to win, all detention centers must allow groups who want to start visitation programs gain access to those detained. Therefore, CIVIC is continually working to expand visitation to other facilities.

For those people in immigration detention who are not confined in one of the 43 detention centers where CIVIC has an affiliated program, CIVIC has created a national hotline that individuals in detention can access at not cost to them. Phone calls in detention centers can cost exorbitant rates due to contracts with private phone companies that allow the detention centers to kick back profits. CIVIC began operating a hotline in Northern California and has since been able to develop a national hotline available at all 210 detention facilities around the country. This hotline is used to make appointments with visitors, connect with families to coordinate release plans, and address rights violations as they happen. CIVIC receives approximately 3,000 calls per month and plans to answer 23,000 phone calls by the end of the year.

CIVIC’s volunteers – whether in-person or via the hotline – are often the detained immigrant’s only window into the outside world, and alongside helping them understand their rights, the volunteers also help connect them to their families, who could be thousands of miles away. These volunteers begin deep relationships with the immigrants, meeting at least weekly, and monitoring and tracking detention conditions, developing a comprehensive understanding of national, regional, and facility-wide trends as they relate to ICE human rights abuses. Through partnerships with the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and others, CIVIC moves forward with reports, class action lawsuits, and complaints to the Office of Civil Rights and Liberties to demand policy change.

CIVIC also actively educates local, state, and Congressional leaders with data and stories on how tax dollars are funding a system that perpetrates human and civil rights violations. For example, CIVIC’s volunteers recently convinced the City of Santa Ana, California, to block a contract to expand their detention center, after Christina represented 31 detained immigrant women in a civil rights complaint alleging unlawful and degrading strip searches. On the state level, Christina is building strong partnerships with groups like the Immigrant Legal Resource Center to co-sponsor a bill to (a) prevent California municipalities from contracting with private immigration detention facilities and (b) codify federal immigration detention standards to give people in detention a right of action for violations. This bill has passed the California State Senate, and will go to the Assembly floor later this year. On a federal level, CIVIC is targeting Congress to educate members on immigration detention alternatives, moving 30 Congressional representatives to sign a “Dear Colleague” letter that calls for an end to the detention of transgender individuals.

Christina believes that in order to defund the current system, there needs to exist an effective and humane alternative. The federal government has shown interest in “alternatives to detention,” but the contracts have been given to subsidiaries of GEO Group. For example, the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) is administered by Behavioral Interventions, a subsidiary of GEO Group. This “alternative” is surveillance-based, with immigrants subjected to ankle bracelets, biometric voice detection and unannounced home visits. In 2015, GEO Care, another subsidiary of GEO Group, was awarded an $11 million contract to monitor and profit off of families with children fleeing violence in their home countries. “The current government-funded ‘alternatives’ are simply alternative forms of detention and reinforce many of the fundamental problems with our current detention system,” Christina says.

In order to replace detention with true community-based alternative to detention programs, CIVIC has been piloting a model for a community-initiated alternative that is based in the relationships that are formed through the volunteer visitation programs. For example, in Richmond, California, CIVIC led an effort to build the "Post Release Accompaniment Program," or PRAP, in collaboration with Centro Legal de la Raza and the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. PRAP connects asylum seekers to housing with a volunteer, legal services, transportation, and limited financial support. PRAP operates independent of the federal government and demonstrates that “people nationwide can build effective and humane pathways away from our punitive immigration detention system.”

CIVIC is currently working to expand the scope of the PRAP demonstration model by engaging local and federal governments in supporting a community-based alternative to detention that replaces immigration detention beds with holistic community support for all immigrants. CIVIC’s community-based alternative to detention is cheaper than the current detention system, and also prioritizes social support rather than surveillance. “Our data will show Congress that the only path forward consistent with our country’s values is to defund immigration detention and use the $2 billion currently slated for detention to support a more humane immigration model,” Christina says. “If the detention system was constructed out of fear, then our only hope for ending this system is to counterbalance this fear with the truth: this system has failed everyone involved. There are alternatives to detention that are cost-effective and more humane. The prospect of building a country aligned with our values as a land of liberty that treats everyone with dignity is not out of reach.”

The Person

Christina is the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants from the Azores and Madeira, Portugal. Her father immigrated to the United States as a child, often acting as an interpreter for his parents and going on to become a business entrepreneur. Christina’s first experience as a social entrepreneur was in college, when she started the Friday Night Talent Show at a shelter and rehabilitation service organization for homeless women and men diagnosed with mental illness. The Talent Show provided shelter residents, who were often immigrants and refugees, and other community members with the ability to share poetry, music, and stories every Friday evening. She recalls meeting a resident who immigrated to US at the same time as her father. “The stark difference between their stories encouraged me to look more closely at our immigration system and at the racial inequality the system is built upon and perpetuates,” Christina says.

After college, Christina worked at the Executive Office for Ashoka Fellow Jane Leu’s organization Upwardly Global, which connects skilled immigrants to careers in the US workforce. There she shaped the Employer Network Program. Working at a social entrepreneurship organization inspired Christina to consider additional approaches to address the needs of immigrant communities.

Following the home raid and subsequent detention of a friend’s father, Christina co-founded the first immigration detention visitation programs in California during law school. She and her co-founder Christina Mansfield quickly took their pilot project to scale, founding CIVIC and expanding the visitor volunteer pool from 100 to over 1400 in just a few years. Christina’s previous experience assisting refugees in the Refugee Resettlement Program at Catholic Charities informs much of her current work on alternatives to detention. Her international experience as a researcher for the Global Detention Project in Switzerland and as
an ESL Tutor to Pakistani immigrant children in England inspires her thinking around how to ensure the US becomes a model for ending immigration detention that other countries will want to follow.

Christina is an attorney licensed in California, and has assisted in defending immigrants from detention and deportation, including arguing a case before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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