Inside Miguel's Political Awakening

Joining a protest at California's Adelanto Detention Facility, the singer reflects on his role in 2017 America

Miguel speaks with a recent detainee of the Adelanto Detention Facility during a roundtable discussion near the center. Credit: Steve Appleford

On a desert road hours northeast of Los Angeles, the singer Miguel stands on a small makeshift stage of wooden pallets in his first act of political protest. Across the street is the Adelanto Detention Facility, temporary home to nearly 2,000 federal immigration detainees, and where guards quietly watch from their trucks as a small gathering of activists and media convene for a dusty, roadside press conference.

Facing the sun and wind in a military-style parka and shades, the singer leans into the microphone: "My name is Miguel. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California," he says, declaring himself the son of an African-American mother and an immigrant father born in Zamora, Michoacán, Mexico. "I'm here to be educated more, and to hopefully ... shed light on the situation, to find some kind of solution and to bring change."

Standing nearby is immigration attorney Christina Fialho, an organizer of the press conference and that night's #SchoolsNotPrisons concert down the road at the Adelanto Stadium baseball field. The detention center, which advocates insist should properly be called a prison, is the largest for-profit facility in California, one of four across the state owned by the GEO Group, a publicly traded corporation. "Its ultimate goal is to maximize profits for shareholders, which is usually on the backs of immigrants," says Fialho, who is executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants from Confinement (CIVIC). "Sexual assaults are being perpetrated by ICE officials, by contracted facility guards, even by medical professionals in these facilities. For every 56 people at this prison, we receive at least one complaint of sexual assault," she said, referring to CIVIC's federal civil rights complaint.

CIVIC filed a federal letter of complaint about the sexual assaults, based on data found through a Freedom of Information Act request. "Our company strongly refutes these allegations," the GEO Group responded in a statement. "The Adelanto ICE Processing Center provides high quality, cultural responsive services, including around-the-clock medical care, in a safe, secure, and humane environment." Without specifically addressing the allegations at Adelanto, ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley said the agency "has a zero tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or assault," noting that detainees and family members have access to multiple procedures for confidential reporting of abuse, staff neglect and retaliation for reporting abuse at its facilities, including Adelanto.

Detainees behind its walls are largely from Latin America, but also originate from Asia and Africa, landing in the U.S. not just for economic reasons but to seek political asylum or escape from areas controlled by criminal gangs. At Adelanto, the U.S. and California flags fly beside the corporate colors of the GEO Group. Its blandly modern exterior reveals nothing of the trouble inside, which has included three deaths in the past year, multiple hunger strikes, poor medical care and several suicide attempts just since December, according to a recent report in The Los Angeles Times.

"ICE takes the death of any individual in its custody very seriously," Haley told Rolling Stone, adding that the larger medical facilities at Adelanto means "a disproportionate number of detainees with health issues" are sent there.

For Miguel, participating in the October 20th press conference and concert is part of a personal, slowly evolving engagement with the political moment, inspired by such musical heroes as Prince, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. "They all cared. It's a human thing," says Miguel. "They all pushed the boundaries in their own way. They all challenged us to look at things a different way. I saw that from the artists I love, and I decided I want to do that. To be an artist is to deal with what's happening in your time."

His upcoming fourth album, War & Leisure is still overwhelmingly upbeat and concerned with the personal and romantic, but it also contains "Now," a questioning socially conscious ballad in the spirit of Lauryn Hill and Sam Cooke. Accompanied by layers of guitar and heavenly, electronic sounds, Miguel sings:

"CEO of the free world now/Build your walls up high and wide ... /Should we teach our children hatred?/Chase the innocent and shoot them down? ... /Is that the look of freedom, now?/Is that the sound of freedom?"

Last November, at age 31, the Grammy-winning soul artist voted in his first presidential election. "Politics, I didn't have a personal interest," Miguel admits. "I didn't really care. What is my one vote? That was my attitude."

He liked President Obama, but didn't feel drawn to the political process until last year's rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries. "Watching him made me interested," said Miguel. "It was also our peers, our conversations, and seeing people really get behind him who shared similar values." Even after Sanders lost the nomination, Miguel stayed engaged through the general election.

After voting, he spent election night with his fiancée at an arcade and played air hockey as the TVs slowly revealed the results, state by state. "The shit started rolling in," remembers Miguel, who tried to stay positive until the results were clear. "With the election going in a direction way unexpected, I couldn't take my eyes off it. I couldn't not pay attention now."

During the two-hour afternoon drive to Adelanto, the singer rides in the back of a black SUV with a bowl of vegan Mexican food in his hands. Outside his window, the California high desert rushes past, with miles of dry brush and Joshua trees and the occasional tract of farmland.

He checks his cell phone, which displays a nuclear mushroom cloud on the screen. "It reminds me, I wake up and go to war every morning," he says, "and we all do."

For part of the drive, he listens to the latest mixes of War & Leisure, due out December 1st, and finds more to tinker with. The album, he says, "is more about the personal struggle to find our way in the middle of it all. Stay positive but be mindful. Not to ignore what's happening, but not to be bogged down by it and stop our way of life."

In rural Adelanto, the night's short concert would include his first public performance of "Now." "I just want to remind people that we all see and feel what you're going through too. We're not ignoring it," explains the singer, born Miguel Jontel Pimentel. "You're taking advantage of people, and now you want to kick them out?"

"For me this is all educational," says Miguel, with growing concern for "the kind of people that are being deported and held in these places, in these private facilities that are really jails. It's fathers, it's mothers, it's people who are contributing to society. It's pretty fucked up, man."

After the press conference, Miguel joins a group of immigrants and family members in the baseball-field locker room who share their stories of coming to America. There is the young Chinese man who spent years locked up within the immigration system, the man from Kenya who was abruptly transferred facility to facility and for years unable to receive mail containing his court paperwork, the young woman in tears talking about a father locked away down the road: "My dad isn't supposed to be in Adelanto. He's supposed to be home."

Miguel tears up. Then Carlos Hidalgo, 50, who has been in the U.S. since he was 11, describes a general sense of despair during his time at the center. Even laborers accustomed to hard work in the fields broke under the weight of detention. He turns to Miguel and says, "I had grown men come to me crying – crying because they need help. Calluses on their hands, wrinkles on their neck because they've been working so many hours in the sun, broken nails, broken fingers. Why is he here? Why is that person in such a position in a system that is supposed to afford us a lot of opportunities?"

At the baseball field, the #SchoolsNotPrisons concert unfolds with a series of musical performers to a small crowd of locals and immigrant families from across Southern California. The temperature hovers around 50, but when Miguel takes the stage, the young women and girls up front erupt with screams and cell-phone flashes.

Accompanied only by an acoustic guitarist, Miguel sings a stripped-down "Adorn," among other hits, plus three new songs. Before he finishes "Now," fans are cheering to its message.

"That's where it's a challenge for me: All right, where do I exist in this now?" Miguel says earlier. "What am I going to do now? What do I care about now? As things change and we grow, our priorities start to shift. I think I'm taking the time to reestablish in my own mind what I'm really trying to do – what it's all for."