On a recent Saturday morning a minivan weaves through the warehouse district of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a port city an hour south of New York. It pulls to a stop beside a nondescript building where the Corrections Corporation of America — a private company — holds hundreds of immigrants in prison conditions. The firm is one of seven nationwide that contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to house immigrants awaiting deportation or applying for asylum. ICE also operates eight facilities itself and contracts with 300 county and state jails to hold immigrants. For the tens of thousands of detainees nationwide, time in immigrant detention is lonely and frightening. They don’t know when they will be released — whether they will be shipped to their home country or be given permission to stay in the United States. Even if they have family in this country, many never see visitors, because undocumented family members are too frightened to show up at an ICE facility, according to immigration reform advocates. The days pass slowly.
So twice a month, a few carloads of New Yorkers travel across the Hudson River to perform a simple corporal work of mercy: visiting the imprisoned.
At 8 a.m. this particular morning Sandra Lobo-Jost, director of the Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice at Fordham University, meets two students who are traveling to the detention facility for the first time.
“I don’t really know exactly what is going to happen or anything, but this is something that I care a lot about,” says Rose Puntel, a soft-spoken freshman who says her parents’ Catholic social justice values shaped how she views the world. “I feel like it’s important as a human being to connect with other human beings, no matter who they are, to show them somebody loves them,” she says.
Danielles Dominguez, a junior who works in Fordham’s Office for International Services, says she is interested in learning about what happens to the immigrants who aren’t as privileged as the international students she serves, those who “don’t get past the gates.” She says she hopes extending a branch of friendship to strangers will help foster better understanding between Americans and people from other countries.
Lobo-Jost has been making these biweekly visits for several years, bringing carloads or trickles of students to meet with immigrants in detention. Lobo-Jost, whose family came to the United States from Portugal when she was a toddler, says the visits make real an abstract political issue.
“As an immigrant myself it’s an issue that’s very important to me and my family,” she says as she drives south on the New Jersey Turnpike. “While I know I can’t change policy overnight, I know I can visit people. And that keeps a personal face on this.”
Once inside the detention facility the women meet a group from Sojourners, an immigration detention visitors project based at Manhattan’s Riverside Church. After waiting for close to half an hour, a guard behind a bulletproof window calls visitors forward. They must present identification, answer questions about their own immigration status and present the immigrant identification number of the detainee they want to visit. (Sojourners gets ID numbers of detainees who say they would like visitors from groups that track human rights conditions in the detention facilities, like the American Friends Service Committee.)
Next, visitors empty their pockets and pass through a metal detector. No cameras, cell phones, recording devices or computers allowed. Finally, at close to 10 a.m., the three women enter a long narrow cinder block room lined with wooden desks and plastic chairs. On the opposite side of clear plastic windows, a stocky man with a lined face walks apprehensively to a seat and picks up a phone. His name is Adonay Pineda, he says. He’s originally from Guatemala and has been in the United States eight years, in the detention center for five months. An undocumented immigrant, ICE came to his home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey one morning and arrested him. He thinks it might have something to do with his wife, who left him for another man — one with citizenship. When Lobo-Jost asks if he has children, tears well in his eyes. He picks at the paint on the windowsill, leaning closer to this stranger. He says his daughter is 4 years old, then he covers his face with a calloused hand and cries.
For about an hour Pineda and Lobo-Jost chat in Spanish. She asks what soccer teams he likes, where in Guatemala he was from, where he worked in Perth Amboy. Soon they determine that Pineda worked in a pizza shop not far from Lobo-Jost’s parents’ house. “I could have seen him any number of times at that pizzeria,” she says later. “It just drives home how invisible undocumented immigrants are.”
Other visitors are talking to detainees about the Olympics or encouraging them to write to their families. Students are explaining what they study in school and where they grew up. Detainee and visitor alike clench the phone between their ear and shoulder and peer intently through the plastic.
This is the mission of Sojourners: accompaniment.
Founded in 1999, the Riverside Church group was formed as “a human response in a social justice context,” said Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, the group’s founder.
The motivation is simple, she said. It’s in black and white in the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was in prison and you visited me”.
“The whole bible is full of admonition to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger,” she said.
For Fouke-Mpoyo and other Sojourners, the circumstances that led to detention are less important than the fact that a person is locked up and alone.
The immigrants might be people seeking asylum, who are brought directly to detention from John F. Kennedy International Airport and never set foot on free American soil. The asylum seekers are held in secure detention while their case is heard — the time frame could be a few months or more than a year. Or detainees may be people like Pineda, who lived in the United States for years and then were swept up in an ICE raid, caught in a traffic stop or turned in by an enemy or ex-wife. Others committed crimes in the United States and face deportation under the Criminal Alien Removal Act.
Many of the Sojourners visitors are engaged in activism for immigration reform at government levels, but they keep visiting the detention center to have a personal impact, they said.
“We’re going as friends, not as attorneys, not as social workers, we’re reaching out to meet the very fundamental human need which is friendship. Someone knows I’m here. I’m not alone,” said Fouke-Mpoyo, who works for the immigration and refugee program of the Church World Service.