Louisiana immigration group sees humanity in all people

Michelle MacFadyen gives Valentina Araque Castillo a sweatshirt to help keep her warm in January.
Michelle MacFadyen of LaAID shows Valentina Araque Castillo clothes and other supplies that were donated to help her reach her elderly grandfather. Photo by Robin May

For the mission-driven members of the Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention, there is confirmation that their young organization has the potential to impact generations of people. 

The numbers speak for themselves.

According to 2023 figures from across the state, LaAID has intervened on behalf of 6,776 immigrants seeking a slice of the American Dream. Of that number, some 1,717 immigrants were helped in Lafayette. Data from last year also shows the group’s members traversed 23,217 miles statewide to become their brother’s — and sister’s — keeper, and 5,000-plus of those miles were in Lafayette.

In early January, on a day when the weather warranted extra clothing to warm the soul, Valentina Araque Castillo arrived in Lafayette hoping for a piece of the dream as well — not just for herself, but also for her 75-year-old grandfather.

“She was hoping to make some money so he didn’t have to work anymore,” says LaAID President Michelle Lafleur MacFadyen, who met her at the Greyhound bus station.

It is these simple things in life, such as love for an elderly relative struggling to make ends meet, that allow LaAID members to open their hearts, and literally their homes, to people others may view as complete strangers.

“As a person who has grown up with a faith foundation, Matthew 25, [we’re to] welcome the stranger,” MacFadyen says. “These are our brothers and sisters who need our help.”

“It’s a simple message I take to heart,” she adds.

In the case of Castillo, after picking her up, LaAID was also able to provide her with authentic cuisine from her native Venezuela when they visited local restaurant Patacon Latin Cuisine.

MacFadyen looks forward to the day when LaAID is no longer needed. “The best scenario is that we are out of business because there are no more detention centers,” she says.

But for now, the group assists detainees from eight detention centers in Louisiana, and also, one in Natchez, Mississippi.

LaAID volunteers serve as foot soldiers in Lafayette, Monroe, Alexandria and Shreveport, ensuring released immigrants reach their destination.

When you get to understand the true human aspect of what’s going on, when you talk to these people, you realize they just want the same thing that we do. They want a home, good education and to work hard to take care of their families.

Michelle MacFadyen

“They’re not looking to settle in Louisiana,” MacFadyen says. “They have a place they want to go because they have family here [in the United States], or they have a sponsor through a church, a nonprofit, interested in sponsoring asylum seekers. We’re one step in the cog to get them to where their final destination is.” 

And that means providing vital transportation, meals and overnight hosting.

According to MacFadyen, it is a misconception that most immigrants are sneaking into the country from across the border. She notes the individuals they have helped are from more than 60 countries, but are rarely coming in from Mexico. She says, for example, that they have helped 30 French-speaking individuals from Senegal.

Also there is a misconception that individuals seeking immigration have come to take jobs away from Americans when in reality many work in the meat-packing and hotel industries — both of which have trouble filling jobs. “They do things that are not as desirable to do, relatively speaking,” MacFadyen says.

It is not illegal for individuals to request asylum by entering the country in any manner. “Even if they cross the river, it’s still legal to turn yourself in and ask for asylum,” MacFadyen says.

MacFadyen stresses that LaAID does not view detainees as illegal immigrants.

“We don’t draw a line; we don’t say there’s good immigrants and bad immigrants,” she says. “There are desperate times in their homelands, whether they’re being tortured, forced to join the military, religiously persecuted, they’re leaving for a good reason.”

And as long as there are detention centers in Louisiana, LaAID is working to meet demands, and that means opening its bandwidth and recruiting new board members who are just as passionate as it is. The group is also looking at becoming more organized and efficient.

One of the main issues, in the past, was the fact that detention centers were in remote areas of the state. “So remote that their only alternative was to take a cab for $200-$300 to the nearest airport. Think about it, that’s a flight in itself,” MacFadyen says.

LaAID gave me a new life from scratch.

Ugandan immigrant, small business owner Shure Ali

The small organization of volunteers originated from even smaller groups, scattered around the state, each trying to make a difference on immigration issues. In 2019, the call to band together, to join forces, became more vocal, and a year later, they did just that when attorney Nell Hahn helped them become incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

“Anybody released from detention has either been approved, granted asylum, or been assured they have a sponsor or family to go to,” MacFadyen says.

And the latter means they are assuring they will show up for their court appointments.

One of the key necessities of LaAID was establishing a hotline from ground zero. “Otherwise, we were getting phone calls on our phones day and night,” MacFadyen says.

They also had to become flexible enough to work with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, so that they could help detainees in need.

Their role is also to ensure detainees’ rights are being upheld. While it is not illegal for them to come to the United States, MacFadyen notes that they are being treated that way at times. “When you see them in handcuffs being transported, they’re being criminalized,” she says.

Last fall, LaAID brought awareness to the plight of immigrants who had died in custody. They held a vigil to honor those who had lost their lives.

Today MacFadyen admits that they do not know the stories of everyone they have helped over the years and along the way. But they do know those they have comforted are seeking relief as weary travelers who also dream the American Dream. Through LaAID’s help, some, like Ugandan immigrant Shure Ali who is running his own business today in Denver, are achieving it.

“LaAID gave me a new life from scratch,” Ali says.

As a result of the organization connecting him to a family, Ali was able to embrace the American Dream after he was taught how to upgrade his credit, start a business and buy a house. Now he looks forward to paying it forward and helping others.

The group is able to help so many individuals as a result of private donations and grants. According to its figures, it spent $135,000 helping individuals across the state in 2023. But there is always a need for more, and anyone interested in contributing and/or volunteering can do so at laaid.org.

Michelle MacFadyen with Valentina Araque Castillo at Greyhound bus station
Michelle MacFadyen shows Valentina Araque Castillo the bus schedule to get to New Orleans. Castillo came to Louisiana from Venezuela and was released from the ICE detention center in Oakdale in early January.

What MacFadyen says she treasures about LaAID’s mission is the human component. “When you get to understand the true human aspect of what’s going on, when you talk to these people,” she says, “you realize they just want the same thing that we do. They want a home, good education and to work hard to take care of their families.”

And what has been so endearing for MacFadyen (a 2023 Undercurrent Award winner) is to witness the reality of LaAID’s immense impact — not only on the detainees they encounter, but even on the members themselves. “To go to the airport and see the smiles on these ladies’ faces who have been through hell to get here,” she says, “my personal annoyances and inconveniences [in life] melt away.”

“It has literally made me a better person. It has taught me to look at things in a way I didn’t,” says Susan Simon, another volunteer of LaAID.

“The people we help are the same as us no matter where they come from,” Simon continues. “They have the same photos on their phones, the same pictures of their moms and dads, their children, their brothers and sisters, their grandparents and grandchildren. They want the same thing we want: safety, security and the ability to have a job and support their families.”