A Little Humanity in U.S. Immigration Detention

Today my heart screams for hope...
The hope of waking up one day free of bars and chains...
The hope of living a life without these problems...
The hope that one morning I will be able to smile again...
The hope of dreaming of a peaceful future full of happiness...
The hope of never again stumbling upon an obstacle so difficult to overcome...
The hope of waking up, only to find that everything
that has happened to me would only be a dream...
This hope, like the word itself, is only a hope.

NEW YORK -- A young Colombian woman detained at Elizabeth Detention Center and Hudson County Jail in New Jersey for more than a year wrote this reflection on hope in December 2007. She had escaped traumatic conflict and abuse in Colombia, and had hoped for the warm, open and secure welcome promised by the Statue of Liberty.

But when she asked for political asylum upon arrival in the United States, the reception was far from welcoming. She was arrested and imprisoned in a windowless converted warehouse. In January 2008, she was deported.

My experience visiting detained asylum seekers during the past five years has opened my eyes to the suffering of these most vulnerable people held for months, sometimes years, in detention centers and jails across the United States.

For nearly 10 years, the Sojourners Immigration Detention Visitor Project, a social justice ministry of The Riverside Church in New York City, has recruited, trained and transported volunteers, matching them one-on-one with detained asylum seekers.

Each week, members of our volunteer corps--students, nurses, artists, business people, scientists and others--travel together in a church van from Manhattan to visit Elizabeth Detention Center, located on a dead-end street in a warehouse district near Newark Airport.

The detainees we visit come from Somalia, Tibet, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Kashmir and other countries where people suffer severe human rights violations.

These visits bring us face to face with detainees' stark daily reality. They are not criminals, but their possessions have been confiscated and they have been given prison uniforms and an alien number bracelet. They are forced to spend 22 to 23 hours every day in the same "dormitory" with toilets and showers open to public view. Their one hour of "outdoor" recreation is in a large room with a skylight. The food is substandard; mail, phone, and television privileges are strictly monitored, and solitary confinement is often the "solution" for the sick, the troubled and any who resist rules.

Visitors seek to provide a compassionate face and an affirmation of humanity in the midst of a dehumanizing scenario. We don't visit as social workers or lawyers, but simply as friends. We urge visitors to recognize their role as listeners, allowing the detainee to guide the conversation.

As a result of powerful reporting on deaths in detention by The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS's 60 Minutes, and the recent release of the powerful new film The Visitor by former Sojourners volunteer Tom McCarthy, there is potential for greater outcry against the U.S. detention of asylum seekers. As more Americans realize what goes on behind prison walls, we hope they will join us in urging the United States to seek alternatives to detention so that immigrants are only held in detention facilities as a last resort and jails are never used for this purpose.

In the meantime, we are committed to visiting the detained, and working with groups in cities near detention centers to begin their own visitation programs.

To learn more about the visitation program, please contact sojourners@theriversidechurchny.org

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