By Patrick Michels
One Tuesday morning in June 2018, a Presbyterian minister named Mary Westfall took a seat in the Yolo County supervisors’ boardroom.
At a typical meeting of the board of supervisors, with the usual agenda of county contracts or land use concerns, the room’s 51 seats would have more than accommodated the turnout. But that day, the seats filled up quickly. People stood in the back holding banners, while others sat outside the room, listening to the action via overhead speakers. Westfall went to the meeting with a mission in mind: she was there to tell county leaders to get out of the business of locking up migrant children.
Over the previous decade, more than 600 children had been sent by the federal government to live there, in Woodland, California, usually for around two months at a time, until they were transferred to another facility or released to a family member. Dozens of shelters across the country had contracts to house children like these—minors who had crossed the border into the U.S. unaccompanied by a parent or guardian—but Yolo County’s was different. It was one of only three places that were holding children in the concrete cells of a juvenile detention center. These lockup facilities, which the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency that oversees the care of unaccompanied children, calls “secure placement,” are the highest-security settings in which the government houses migrant children. Minors are directed there if they have criminal records or are otherwise deemed to “pose a danger” to themselves or others. Federal officials decide, on an individual basis, just what that means.
Westfall had lived in the county for less than a year, and this was her first visit to the board of supervisors. She came to the meeting dressed in the conservative style of the clergy, with her dark blond hair short and her clerical collar peeking out beneath a black sweater. She’d worked with immigrant communities on the East Coast, and now, in her new home, she’d found a new cause: holding federal officials accountable for detaining children, many of whom had never been charged with a crime and would be free if not for their immigration status. It seemed clear to Westfall what justice required the county to do. The board was going to vote on whether to back out of a three-year federal contract to house unaccompanied minors through January 31, 2020.
Westfall sensed a special kind of energy in the room—the stakes were high, and the community had turned out in force. She watched as the day’s first speaker approached the podium.