Jonathan Freed hasn’t eaten since New Year’s Eve. The South Florida immigrants’ rights activist is one of six people who say they will not eat until President Obama puts a stop to deportations that separate immigrants from their American families. (Download the letter to the president.)
After a few days he stopped being hungry or thinking of food, he said. Instead he is consistently queasy, and his head is a little foggy.
The hunger strikers are part of a increasingly impatient immigrant movement that wants to see a moratorium on deportations until comprehensive immigration reform is enacted by Congress.
So Freed and his companions are camping on the grounds of St. Ann’s Mission in Naranja, Florida. Naranja is a community filled with Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants, too many of whom, Freed said, are at risk of deportation either because they are in the country illegally or because they’ve committed crimes ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) deems worthy of exile.
“In our community the amount of enforcement is ripping families apart,” he said Wednesday. Freed, who is executive director of We Count!, a immigrant rights organization, acknowledges that the hunger strike is a dramatic step — and one that could fail. But more traditional forms of protest haven’t worked, he said.
“People have marched, written letters, held rallies and vigils. We’ve done all that. The situation has become so critical we felt we had to do something dramatic,” said Freed.
So for thirteen days now Freed and five others — among them undocumented immigrants with American children — have slept in a tent on the church grounds and spent their days explaining their action to visitors, keeping each other company and praying.
“It’s a political action, but it’s also a spiritual action that you try to get God to intercede and change the hearts of those in government,” Freed said.
“We wanted to say that it’s not ok to let these bureaucracies work mechanically, in the face of very human tragedies, in the face of children losing their father.”
“God says these are the ones you have to look after: the widows, the orphans and the aliens. That’s because those are the ones whose dignity is most under threat.”
— Rev. Michael Ellick, associate minister at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan
A senseless policy — a family suffers
That is exactly what Jean Montrevil is praying for as well. The 41-year-old Haitian immigrant, Brooklyn, New York resident and father of four is in a jail in York County, Pennsylvania, awaiting deportation to the country he left when he was 16. Tuesday’s devastating earthquake offered an odd sort of reprieve, temporarily suspending deportations to Haiti, but Montrevil is still in detention, three hours away from his family and could be deported as soon as ICE deems conditions in Haiti stable.
That’s because in 1989, when he was 19, Montrevil supplemented his cab driver income by selling drugs. He was convicted of selling cocaine and served a ten-year sentence. He makes no excuses for the crime and admits he deserved prison time.
“That’s the thing in my life I would wish I could take back,” he said Wednesday over a crackling phone line from the county jail, one of hundreds of facilities nationwide with which ICE contracts to hold detainees.
“I was already a grown man when I came to this country and met my father. We didn’t get along and I ran away from home. I got caught up on the street,” Montrevil said. His mother died when he was a child in Haiti.
Montrevil was released from prison in 2000 and completed parole. He embarked on a new life, he said, starting a business driving church vans, getting married, and doting on his children.
“I wanted to give my children what I didn’t have: a mother, a father and the love they deserve.”
But the drug conviction just won’t go away. Under immigration law enacted in 1996, any immigrant convicted of a felony can be deported, even after they complete their U.S. prison sentence. In 2008, ICE deported 97,000 of them, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration Statistics Yearbook. The numbers for 2009 are not yet available, but they might be even higher, since ICE stepped up enforcement last year. Thousands more immigrants like Montrevil sit in detention centers and jails as their cases wind through the immigration court system.
To Montrevil and his friends and supporters, the policy doesn’t make sense.
“This is a crime I committed over twenty years ago. And I paid my debt for it,” he said. “I’ve been violated from the most basic human rights there are. Family is a basic right, the foundation of life, and they are trying to take that away.”
Friends and supporters take action and turn out
Since his arrest by ICE on December 30, the New Sanctuary Coalition, a network of religious communities committed to aiding immigrants at risk of deportation, and Families for Freedom, a group working to end deportations that separate American children from their immigrant parents, have swung into action. They want ICE to reopen Montrevil’s case and they want him released to his wife and children in the meantime.
Scores of people have turned up to rallies and vigils outside ICE offices in Manhattan and flooded local members of the U.S. House of Representatives with calls for assistance.
Several NY members of Congress have urged ICE to take a closer look at Montrevil’s case and to delay deportation until further arguments can be heard.
But Montrevil’s friends are frustrated and skeptical of administrative process. So twice last week, people stood in the street to block ICE from delivering more immigrants to detention. Those nineteen were arrested and charged with obstructing governmental operation.
Rev. Michael Ellick, associate minister at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, is one of them. He stood in the street, he said, because, like Jonathan Freed, he felt he needed to do something extreme to draw attention to an extreme situation.
“We wanted to say that it’s not ok to let these bureaucracies work mechanically, in the face of very human tragedies, in the face of children losing their father. We need to really illustrate with our own bodies what is happening to so many of our friends.”
For Ellick, whose church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Convention, the message in Christian and Hebrew scripture is clear. It commands believers welcome the stranger.
“We find Jesus in the downtrodden and the outcast and the oppressed. It is not ok to think of this as some kind of empty theology,” he said.
Because Christians believe God became flesh, the temporal world matters, Ellick said. “We have an incarnationalist theology here. The power of the scripture is the power of its application in the real world. If Jesus is to be real, then we need to look to where Jesus points.” And it points to a man being punished multiple times for the same crime, Ellick said.
Mark Hallinan, SJ, assistant for social ministries for the NY Jesuits said the Christian imperative is very simple.
“God says these are the ones you have to look after: the widows, the orphans and the aliens. That’s because those are the ones whose dignity is most under threat,” he said. And in Montrevil’s case, he said, concern for the strength and wellbeing of a family needs to be taken into consideration.
That’s precisely what the Child Citizen Protection Act, introduced into Congress by U.S. Representative Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) and co-sponsored by U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) and others would do. It would give the judges who rule on immigration matters discretion to consider the fate of American children whose parents face deportation.
Kevin Appleby, director of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the comprehensive immigration reform the bishops are lobbying for would address the issue of family separation simply, by offering a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
Changing the laws on deporting people like Jean Montrevil, who have committed serious crimes, would be harder, Appleby said.
“Politically speaking, that would be a tough sell.” But restoring judicial discretion to immigration judges could be more likely.
In the meantime, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reinvigorated its push for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington and has a new website through which Catholics, and other supporters of immigration reform, can send postcards to their political representatives, urging them to enact laws that respect the dignity of immigrants, legal or not.
On Thursday New Sanctuary Coalition and Families for Freedom members are returning to the ICE offices in lower Manhattan. This time no one is planning to get arrested, organizers said. Instead they will hold signs protesting the disruption of family life — and they’ll sing — hoping that their voices rise above the din of Manhattan to the immigrants held on the upper floors. They want the detainees to know they are not forgotten.