Last year I joined a team that visits the Strafford Country Department of Corrections in Dover, NH to meet with those immigrants who have been recently detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). I go as often as my schedule allows, usually once every three to four weeks. In addition, I visit the jail each month to celebrate Communion in Spanish and respond to pastoral requests that are referred to me. Occasionally, I am asked how my ministry to the immigrant detainees at is going, and I want to talk about that here.
How do these immigrants come to be incarcerated? Frequently, cars are pulled over on the interstate highway as groups of men and women drive to and from their homes to work; some of these men and women may be detained. Some individuals are arrested by ICE outside of courthouses and workplaces. Those undocumented immigrants who are detained/arrested in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are held at The Dover facility, which is contracted by the Federal government.
The profiles of the men and women the team sees at the Dover facility vary. Some of them have been living and working in this country for decades. Some are in their mid-30s and were brought to the country as minors. I have met some men who were political refugees from civil-war-torn West Africa who arrived in this country traumatized and, never fully assimilated into our society, became criminalized in poor and marginalized neighborhoods. Now they are day laborers who work in dairy farms in rural Vermont, doing the back-breaking work in rural areas that American workers do not want to do. They are mothers and fathers of children born in the U.S. They are people who have escaped gang-infested homelands, where there is little prospect for a peaceful future, who arrived to this country after a perilous journey. Many have no criminal records. Their only crime is being undocumented. They are from Mexico, Honduras, Romania, Serbia, Jordan, Jamaica, Cape Verde, Sudan, Liberia, Nigeria, El Salvador, Belgium, Cuba, Haiti, Iraq and many others nations.
When I enter the facility, I bring my acquired personal political beliefs. I do believe that every developed economy today needs a reliable and safe flow and exchange of immigrants traveling to and from their home countries to add to a thriving or developing economy. And I do believe that our prosperity has come at a cost, often born by those unseen and unknown. Our importation of illegal drugs from this hemisphere has left the social structure of many countries south of our border in shambles. Money and guns flow south and drugs come north.
I also bring my faith. The Gospels invite us to encounter Christ in and with those who are imprisoned. There is humanity, vulnerability, regret, anguish, loneliness, fear, and longing. Every emotion possible is on display.
The team does not judge those whom we meet. We listen to them and inform them of the legal rights they have. We connect some of them to legal counsel and share with them the long and arduous process of being granted asylum.
When I enter the jail as pastor/priest, I always remind those I meet that they will not be defined by this experience—but it will affect them. I encourage them to be hopeful. I remind them that there are people on the outside of those walls who desire a better system to regulate the flow of migrants across borders.
I carry their faces with me throughout my day.
I am thankful to the vestry of Christ Church, Exeter, for encouraging and supporting my work outside of the parish.
Glossary of Terms: Immigration Cheat Sheet
(Friends Visitation Manuel)
Department of Homeland Security (DHS): charged with “protecting” the United States. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security Act, DHS absorbed most of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and took on its duties. DHS split immigration-related duties between three separate agencies: (CIS)-Citizenship and Immigration Services, (ICE)-Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and (CBP)-Customs and Border Protection.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): Part of the US Department of Homeland Security, the US ICE oversees and administers all matters relating to enforcement of US immigration laws.
Immigrant: a person who comes to the U.S. in order to establish their residence here (for economic betterment, family re-unification, etc.
Undocumented: An informal term to describe noncitizens who have no government authorization to be in this country.
Refugee: a person who is outside their country and unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. (Definition in the 1951 Geneva Convention and U.S. Immigration Law).
Asylum seeker: a person seeking asylum in another country based on similar characteristics as a refugee. US immigration law requires that people who ask for asylum at an airport or point of entry into the U.S. must be detained. Affirmative asylum seekers are those who ask for asylum after entering and within 1 year of residing in the US. They are not detained.
Asylee: a person granted asylum in the United States.
Asylum office: the branch of ICE that makes decisions on asylum cases and also does ‘credible fear’ interviews in the detention centers.
Detention: People are detained at every step of the “immigration process” (1) awaiting adjudication of asylum or adjustment applications; (2) picked up and jailed without charges; (3) pending immigration proceedings; (4) after being ordered deported, while ICE is actively trying to remove them; and (5) sometimes indefinitely, when ICE knows it may not be able to deport someone with an order of deportation.
Criminal Alien: a noncitizen legally in the U.S. who has committed a felony at some time in the past and is deportable. The definition of a felony was drastically broadened by the 1996 Immigration Act.
Undocumented worker: a noncitizen in the U.S. who works without proper visas.
Deportation/Removal: Expulsion of a noncitizen from the United States. People who can be deported include noncitizens (including green card holders) with past criminal convictions; visa overstays; refugee/asylum seekers; and those who entered without inspection (for example, by crossing the border unlawfully). Once removed, a noncitizen faces legal bars for a time period that prevent his or her return or sometimes they are permanently barred.
Voluntary Departure: DHS may, in its discretion, allow a person to depart from the US at his or her own expense in lieu of being subject to proceedings. DHS will allow someone no more than 120 days to depart the US. If the person fails to deport, s/he will be subject to fines and a 10 year period of ineligibility for other forms of relief. Immigrants with aggravated felonies are ineligible for voluntary departure.
Who are Immigration Detainees?
The detention of immigrants is the fastest growing prison industry in the United
States. Every day, 34,000 immigrant detainees are held in detention centers throughout the country. Each year, between 280,000 and 300,000 immigrants are held in over 350 detention facilities, operated by the federal government, by private prison corporations or local county jails (detentionwatchnetwork.org).
Detainees include both individuals and whole families, including children and asylum seekers. Immigrants from across the world are detained (imprisoned) for a variety of reasons which include but are not limited to:
· Asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their homeland because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
· Border crossings, for economic reasons, or waiting many years to be reunited with a family member.
· Undocumented workers who were caught in a raid and are awaiting deportation.
· Visa overstays: Individuals who have committed a crime, served their time, found to be without correct documented papers and are detained waiting for deportation. Lawful permanent residents are subject to deportation for minor offenses such as buying stolen jewelry or possession of marijuana, which are misdemeanors for U.S. citizens but deportable offenses for lawful permanent residents.
Many immigrants in detention are married to U.S. citizens and have U.S.-born
children. Most immigrants face civil charges relating specifically to their immigration status. However, some immigrants have been charged with identity fraud for using false social security cards, which is a criminal offense. Depending on these charges, detained immigrants may proceed to either civil or criminal court.
Whatever their circumstances may be, detainees suffer from inhumane treatment in all aspects of their detention