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Migrants in detention: ‘you are not forgotten’
February 28, 2013

Migrants in detention: ‘you are not forgotten’
In the Florence Service Processing Center, families are allowed to have contact visitation—meaning that those in detention are allowed to hold babies in their arms, settle five year olds into their laps, bear hug embarrassed teenagers, and embrace their spouses. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
In 2011, the average length of stay for immigrants who were detained was 29 days. But the actual experiences of individuals vary widely. On one end of the spectrum is the young man we met who was detained at Florence for five years while his asylum case was ongoing. Although he recently won his case, and has now been reunited with his family, he lost half of his 20s to the detention center. On the other end is the group of Central American men in bright yellow uniforms who will only stay in the facility for a matter of hours before being deported. For all those in between, the looming question of "how long?" leads to a kind of bored anxiety that hums through every interaction.

(Washington, D.C.) February 28, 2013 — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA provides direct service to detained migrants via the Detention Chaplaincy Program. JRS/USA chaplaincy programs are based on a non-proselytizing model that is ecumenical in scope and practice. Through the program, chaplains promote courage, hope and peace for detainees in the ups and downs and day-to-day routines of their lives inside a detention facility. Recently staff members visited the federal detention center in Florence, Ariz.

We arrive at Florence Service Processing Center just in time for a communion service, offered every Saturday morning in the cafeteria by a team of dedicated chaplains known within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as "Religious Services Providers."

During the service, the assembled men are asked "How many of you are fathers?"

The overwhelming majority of them raise their hands. Some do so quickly, shooting them straight up in the air before she is even done asking the question. Some barely move, lifting their arms halfway, their expressions unchanging. Some look around and then look down as they slowly raise their hands. I catch one man’s eye by accident as he hesitates, and then lifts his hand. 

I imagine that the varied ways in which these men express their answers to the simple question tell something about their story. Perhaps one of those whose hand shot up into the air had recently seen his child during family visitation. Or perhaps he was looking forward to a visit in the coming days. I imagine that one of those who looked down, raising his hand slowly, is broken-heartedly resigned to a long-term separation.

Unfortunately, the negative impact of immigrant detention on families is clear, though it manifests in a variety of ways.

Earlier this year, the Applied Research Center documented the ways in immigrant detention, along with other immigration enforcement mechanisms, separate families and result in an estimated 5,100 children of immigrant parents, many of whom are U.S. citizens, being placed into U.S. foster care.  

Some families are unfortunate enough to experience what ICE calls "long distance transfers." Sometimes this is unavoidable, such as when individuals have special needs that cannot be met at the closest facility. However, it often occurs as the result of carelessness or without considering the devastating impact of moving individuals so far away that it becomes impossible for their families to come visit them.

Fortunately, a new ICE directive acknowledges these impacts and encourages facilities to take into account factors such as whether or not detained individuals have family or a lawyer in the area, but there is still work to be done to hold ICE accountable to this new directive.

Even if families manage to avoid the worst effects, countless small barriers serve to isolate immigrants in detention. 

While most facilities have phones that individuals can use to call their families, the rates are often incredibly expensive—as much as several dollars a minute.

In the Florence Service Processing Center, families are allowed to have contact visitation—meaning that those in detention are allowed to hold babies in their arms, settle five year olds into their laps, bear hug embarrassed teenagers, and embrace their spouses. But all too often, immigrants in detention are forced to connect with their families through the barrier of thick plastic.

Those from less-common language groups face an additional challenge. The overwhelming majority of immigrant detainees are Spanish-speaking, though many are bilingual. Some, like the Romanian we met, know enough English to communicate with the guards and other detainees. But for those who speak neither English nor Spanish—like the Hindi-speaking man we encountered, near tears as he struggled unsuccessfully to navigate the phone system—the isolation of detention is immense. 

For everyone, there is the sensation of imprisonment despite, in most cases, never having committed a criminal offense: uniforms, guards, headcounts, razor wire, and rigid rules.

But perhaps most ubiquitous is the uncertainty that permeates the facility. In 2011, the average length of stay for immigrants who were detained was 29 days. But the actual experiences of individuals vary widely. On one end of the spectrum is the young man we met who was detained at Florence for five years while his asylum case was ongoing. Although he recently won his case, and has now been reunited with his family, he lost half of his 20s to the detention center. On the other end is the group of Central American men in bright yellow uniforms who will only stay in the facility for a matter of hours before being deported. For all those in between, the looming question of "how long?" leads to a kind of bored anxiety that hums through every interaction.       

All of these factors, large and small, contribute to the isolation, and in some cases desperation, that immigrants in detention feel.

It is in this context that JRS/USA’s chaplains do their work. They coordinate religious services, find musical instruments for worship, distribute Bibles, Qur’ans and other religious texts, and offer prayers. They provide reading material in detainees’ native languages and, at Florence, circulate an immense National Geographic collection throughout the facility—opening up the doors of the detention center to the outside world a few pages at a time. 

They visit detainees in segregation (civil detention’s version of solitary confinement) and teenagers waiting to be transferred to a juvenile facility. They ask "How are you doing today?" "Are you ok?" "Is there anything you need?"

Especially when detainees are denied most forms of familial support, the chaplains offer a vital physical reminder: we’re praying for you; your wellbeing is our concern. And as families are strained to the breaking point or bewilderment overwhelms or despair settles in, their presence whispers the most important message of all: you are not forgotten.       

By Mary Small
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy

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Press Contact Information
Mr Christian Fuchs
communicationsdirector@jesuit.org
202-629-5946