SMHS Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture Focuses on Plight of Immigrants in the United States

Christina Fialho speaking at podium

Christina Fialho, JD, co-founder and co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, presented on U.S. immigration policies and detention centers during the 4th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture hosted by the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Science’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Fialho, an attorney and immigration detention expert who has spent 15 years advocating for immigrants, recounted personal stories of people who immigrated to the United States and were detained or taken from their families.

“We have seen a lot of progress in this county, but we also have seen history repeat itself and we have seen oppression take on different forms,” she said at the start of her talk.

One story Fialho told was about Olivia, a young woman whose less than 2-year-old son, Mateo, was taken from her at a port of entry in California. “Barely able to walk or talk, he spent months at a child detention center,” Fialho said. “Olivia’s family is just one of thousands separated at the border in the last few years experiencing these things.”

Fialho noted that while such policies existed even before the Donald Trump Administration took office, the incidence of those policies has escalated since then. Fialho also spoke about the history of immigration in the United States, including the first immigration act passed in 1790, which granted citizenship only to “free white persons of good moral character.”

In her remarks, Fialho recalled one of the first people she visited with when starting at Freedom for Immigrants 10 years ago was Anna, a victim of sex trafficking who was detained by the U.S. government. The organization was able to reconnect Anna with her daughter and help her find an attorney who ultimately won her a T visa, which allows victims of human trafficking to remain in the United States.

Lecture attendees also watched videos featuring the voices and stories of people detained in detention centers at the border. They told stories of isolation and lack of proper medical care and human rights. 

Fialho also spoke about how Freedom for Immigrants, in partnership with Human Rights Watch and the help of doctors, released a report that independently analyzed medical records of 18 people who died in detention. They found that of those cases, subpar medical care contributed to 16 of the deaths.

She added that her organization is doing all it can to help people and enact change. That includes raising money to bond people out of immigration detention and provide them with post-release support, as well as advocating for and supporting legislation that helps immigrants. 

“Instead of having people be detained, through our efforts we’re showing what it would look like to welcome immigrants rather than imprison them,” she said.

Fialho also offered ways to get involved, including volunteering with visitation programs to spend time at detention facilities in Maryland and Virginia. “We’re also looking to recruit psychologists, psychiatrists, and other health care providers who are interested in working with us on reports, volunteering to provide therapy to our clients, or just speaking out about immigration detention,” she said.

“I come from three generations of immigrants … what we do for people in immigration detention doesn’t just affect them, it affects their children and it affects generations to come,” Fialho said. 

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