USA: Detention Center Chaplain Provides Hope

28 March 2016|Sean Lengell , Communications Officer


Life has taken many unconventional twists and turns for Carlos Bustamante. From bodyguard to air traffic controller to airline executive to Catholic lay minster, this Peru native and Florida resident has enjoyed an exceptionally interesting and full life. But it’s his latest role as a detention facility chaplain for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA that is perhaps his greatest challenge and love.

Attending to the pastoral, religious and other needs of asylum seekers, migrants and refugees at the U.S. Immigration and Custom Service’s Krome Service Processing Center in Miami is at times heartbreaking. Yet despite fear and despair that constantly lingers within the facility’s walls, Bustamante has worked hard to foster an environment of hope, love and spirituality, regardless of the faith — or lack thereof — of the detainees.

I spoke with Bustamante about his ministry, his life as an immigrant and what his chaplaincy work means to him and those he serves.

Question: So, tell me a little about yourself? Where did you grow up? Why did you decide to be a chaplain?

Carlos Bustamante: I was born in Peru, in the south part of Peru in a city named Arequipa; it’s the second largest city of Peru. And I migrated to the United States in 1970. Back then in my country I was an air traffic controller for many years. Then when I came here I got a job with the Kuwait mission to the United Nations; I was their chauffeur and a bodyguard for the ambassador and his family. Then I got into business. My main line of business is aviation. I got my license with the Federal Aviation Administration for a flight dispatcher. Then I got a job with Argentina Airlines at Kennedy Airport. Then I worked for the airlines for about 25 years. I got my master’s degree in aviation management from Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University, and I managed different airlines. I had different posts in Anchorage, New York and Miami.

In 1999 I finished my training as a lay minster with the Archdiocese of Miami, and I went to meet Archbishop (John) Favalora, and he asked me, “How would you like to provide your services to the community?” And I said “I don’t know. What do you suggest?” And he recommended that I get into the prison ministry. And I worked (at a Miami prison) as a volunteer for 10 years. Once I got into the prisons I found a tremendous spiritual need for these people who are lost, and they are lost in so many ways, especially spiritually. Many don’t have a solid background in faith, and they are lost in the system and lost in their own lives because many of them lost family, they lost businesses, and they didn’t have any guidance or goals and nothing to look forward to. So at the time I decided that this is what I wanted to do as a ministry. It was a great, great glory for me, because it was not what I gave but what I gained from it. It was tremendous and I learned much about all the different religions and beliefs and faiths and how each one looks for their own spirituality. And that is what moved me to get into the prison ministry.

Q: As a Catholic minister, are you asked to minister to people of other faiths?

CB: Yes. One of the most important jobs of a chaplain is to provide religious assistance to (people of) different faiths. So at Krome, the majority are Catholics and Christians, but we have plenty of Muslims, some Jewish, some Sikh faith, some Buddhist. Others are Orthodox Christians from Eritrea, from Ethiopia. We also have Chinese who are Buddhists and Taoists and other faiths. And each one of them wants to practice their faith. So my job as a chaplain is to try to provide as many opportunities for them to find themselves their own way to (God) within their own faith. That’s a tremendous challenge.

Q: How long have you been with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA?

CB: One year in March.

Q: How did you establish your relationship with JRS/USA?

CB: The previous (chaplaincy) contract at Krome was through Church World Service, and I was hired by them at that time. When the contract was finished, the new contract was granted to JRS and I was offered the position to remain here as a chaplain.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about Krome, what kind of detention facility is it, and who are the detainees?

CB: Krome attends to detainees who are suspected of illegal immigration problems. There are three kinds of people here. Some of them have been criminals who served their time but because they’re from different origins they’re back in the system as detainees, searching for either the opportunity to remain in this country or to be deported to their homeland. The second ones are people who committed small crimes, or they lost their legal alien card or their citizenship, and they also are waiting for the system to clear their status. And the third ones are just those who got caught without immigration papers — either they overstayed their permits in the United States or they crossed the frontiers or they came themselves willing to ask for asylum in the United States, and this group of people come from all over the world. We have around 600 people in a steady situation, plus about 400 people on a monthly turnover — they come and go. And so we serve them all.

Q: Where are the detainees you serve from?

CB: Mostly they are from Central America, I’d say about 60 percent. The rest are from the Middle East, Europe, the Far East, from all over the world, really.

Q: How long, on average, do most detainees stay?

CB: It all depends on their papers. Within 90 days (the federal government has) to have all of the details that they need, and all the legal papers have to be presented. Then they are granted a court (hearing). Once at court the judge decides what to do. And if they have a lawyer they can fight the stay or they could ask for deportation or they could ask for asylum. And in general terms, within 90 days people have an idea what’s going to happen to them.

Q: When you minster to these people, what kinds of things do they ask for? What kinds of things do they seek when they come to see you?

CB: Most of their needs (deal with) instability — mental depression and final situations, family issues, a lack of confidence in themselves. And they don’t see the future, they are locked up and they think it’s going to last a long time. They usually do not accept the situation and then fall into depression. That’s what we have to face immediately — try to give them the self-control, the meaning of life, something to look forward to, to fight for, prioritizing their goals and their relations with their people. Most of them have lost their family, and my job is to ask them to find their own responsibility of their acts from the past, the present and the future, so they can … change the way they do things and to have a new life, especially providing them with a religious guidance so they find meaning in their lives and a reason to go back to their families.

And another problem they have is insecurity of their spiritual situation. Most have never heard about God or heard about any religion — they come from broken families with no direct spiritual guidance. So now that they have the time we provide them, for instance, two services for every day, from Monday to Saturday, different religions, denominations, so they can go and learn about God, about what the Bible says or what the Koran says or what Buddhism is all about, and find in some way their way to God. I tell them all the time, “I do not impose anything on you. You have to find your own spiritual path to your own God.” And God is one for everybody. We are creatures of God. He created us, and we have to find our own way to reach him. It’s a continuation, it’s a life-long education. And what is rewarding for me is to find that, every day, the opportunity to find 100 people who attend these religious services and they themselves find time to discuss spiritual subjects among themselves and in the recreation area… It’s very interesting to see each group searching for the spiritual meaning of life.

Q: As a chaplain at a detention facility, you must have learned a lot about other faiths.

CB: Well I have to. Especially the main religions of the world I have to be aware. One of my duties, for instance, is to provide religious diets based on their faith. I cannot just grant a religious diet to anybody because they want to have kosher meals, for instance. So we have to study the situation and see what each religion requires for meals and dietary supplements, etc.

Q: Do you bring in other religious leaders from the community to help?

CB: We have a rabbi. We used to have an imam but in the last three years nobody came forward…

Detention ministry is not for everybody. It is a difficult encounter in life with these people, people of different faiths, different environments, different cultures and so forth. So it’s kind of difficult to handle the situation unless you are dedicated to study and provide pastoral care, which is mostly what is needed. We are there for them — personal companionship — to be there whenever they need us, when they have family problems, when somebody dies, when they are desperate, when they are mentally ill, when they don’t trust anybody, when they are completely insecure, when they found that everybody judged them and they found themselves segregated by their own peers. So to find a balance with them without getting into a confrontation is important.

Q: What do you think is the greatest need of detained people?

CB: The greatest need is for them to find confidence in themselves and finding a meaningful life. And that is provided by us when we talk to them, person to person, when we give them the opportunity to find their paths to their God, when they can practice their own faith, their own way. And we provide them as many items as possible so they can practice their own faith.

Q: What’s the most difficult part of your job?

CB: To get their trust, their confidence. I have to work that out. Not everybody opens up so easily. And it’s a matter of culture. You have to understand different cultures, not only their faith but how they behave, how they think. So to be able to gain their trust and be there when they are in need is very important. This is the most difficult part, to be able to reach them. And once you have their personal confidence, you will be able to guide them to whatever they want. And this can be done person to person, one to one, or it can be done in groups. So for instance on Monday and Wednesday and Saturday we have Catholic service, which is the majority of the people who are there. And they come to the service and we use that opportunity to try to provide them the mediation on subjects that the need to grow, they need to have to understand what the Catholic religion teaches, and why and how they could apply that teaching to their own life. So this is group therapy, you could say.

Q: What’s the most rewarding, the most inspiration aspect of your job?

CB: It’s the respect I get from them. When I walk around and they say, “Chaplain, good morning. How are you doing today?” The way they talk to me is not how they talk to other members of the staff. And I am present all the time, I go around every day to the dormitories, the cafeteria, and to the different places they are, the recreation area, and I talk to anybody, whoever approaches me. So I’m there most of the time contacting with them. And I can feel the respect and the attention that they give me, because I am the chaplain. They come to me to discuss their own personal problems, even legal problems, even though I cannot provide any legal assistance because I’m not allowed to. But I can give them the hope that eventually everything will work.

Q: Is there anything ordinary people, people outside the facility, can do to help?

CB: In my religious services program that I run we have more than 80 volunteers of different faiths who come to provide religious services on a daily basis. Half of these people come one or twice a month, and the other half comes every two months. And they rotate because it’s a difficult situation, and each one is given the opportunity to be service to the detainees.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add, anything else you’d like to make sure that the public knows about your job?

CB: Don’t judge these fellows. They have their reasons why they have done what they’ve done, and many of them, they don’t have any alternative but to come to this country, putting into jeopardy their life. Of course, there are some ones who take advantage of the situation, but most of them, they’re looking for a new life and a new opportunity.

And the system has to be more open as far as tending to their legal needs faster, regardless of what the decision is — if they’re going to be deported, if they’re going to get asylum or they’re going to be released to their families. Whatever their situation may be, it has to be faster than it is (now). I have a few people who have been here two years waiting for a decision from the courts. It’s unbelievable that this situation is happening. That’s what I’m concerned about.