Ash Wednesday Vigilance: Local Group Stands Up for Detained Immigrants

The Interfaith Refugee Action Team–Elizabeth (“IRATE” for short) held its regular ash Wednesday vigil on Feb. 6 outside of the Elizabeth Detention center, a privately run prison that confines refugees while their cases are pending. More than 150 participants from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey Gathered at the prison for prayers and song, and received the traditional marking of ash on their foreheads. Groups represented included Pax Christi, the National Association of Social Workers, the New York New Sanctuary Movement, Sojourners Prison Visitation Project, the Haitian Solidarity Network of the Northeast, the May 1 Coalition, the Globe & Port Coalition, and at least a dozen churches and faith-based communities.

Juan Carlos Ruiz of the NY-New Sanctuary Movement
Juan Carlos Ruiz of the NY-New Sanctuary Movement
(A shorter version of this article was originally published in the Indypendent -- click here to view story.

Spanning the 40 days before Easter, Lent is traditionally a time of individual contrition and fasting. But IRATE sees the need for collective confession. “We are trying to do penance on behalf of our whole country,” said attendee Gregory Sullivan. “Because when we condone this, we are guilty.”

The Elizabeth Detention center and its owner, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are part of a growing trend of incarceration being used as a solution to the “immigration problem.” While being held, detainees are caught in a legal limbo, and are not protected by any government’s civil liberties. They are kept in detention for the entire time their cases are being processed, which can be a matter of months or years. During that time they have no right to a lawyer and can access health care only in the case of imminent death.

The use of such institutions is growing rapidly as anti-immigrant measures are pursued across the country. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” said Geri Mulligan, one half of a husband-wife duo that leads the effort. “In 1998 there were between six and seven thousand immigrants being kept in detention on any given day; today there are 27,000.”

“People ask me, does that make you feel discouraged? But no, it just makes me irate!” she said.

The group took on its name in 1999, a year into their vigil. “We were always angry at our meetings,” Mulligan remembers. “So we picked the name IRATE and found words that fit the acronym.”

IRATE works closely with the First Friends prison visitation program, which was founded after the Jesuit refugee Service pulled funding for a similar effort. The Ash Wednesday gathering drew volunteers who had been visiting prisoners for the better part of the decade. A similar program in New York city called “Sojourners” is run out of the Riverside Church.

"You have to do both," explained Geri. "You have to visit because people are in there, and you have to advocate because we have got to change the system. One thing we know for sure is that if you lose those face to face relationships, your advocacy goes down the drain."

Karen and Mary, two longtime visitors, explained to me how the program works. Each visitor goes through a training and then is mentored by an experienced visitor. Then they are given one or two names of prisoners who have said they want to have visitors. They agree to visit each detainee at least twice a month and also keep the group informed as to how they are doing.

A fundamental challenge First Friends faces is getting the names of prisoners who want visits. The main way First Friends does this is through a postage distribution program called "Stamp Out Despair." Twice a year they mail out free packets of stamps to all the detainees, and includes in this mailing a card that they can return indicating that they would like to be matched with a visitor. Each of these mailings yields between 40 and 50 people who need visiting, said Geri.

But visiting is not the half of it. This community of faith-based activists shoulders almost all of the labor that the government and CCA declines to provide for the detainees. A coalition of four faith-based service organizations organizes volunteers to conduct interviews with each new detainee. They produce legal summaries, and post them to online bulletin boards that pro-bono lawyers can check. The coalition also posts contact numbers of lawyers and legal agencies in the prison, who the detainees can call and persuade to take their case.

Of course to make these calls they have to earn money to buy a phone card, explained one former detainee who declined to give his name. "You just have to get up off your cot, you know. If you stay down you can get stuck, but if you get up you can figure it out. Then you go around and ask for work, like in the kitchen and the laundry. And they pay you one dollar a day. One dollar! But you can do it. You just have to get up and MOVE, you know!" This man, who came here from Uganda in 2003, argued his own case before the INS for eight months, and finally obtained refugee status. He has stayed in touch with IRATE during the years since.

Four years ago, CCA and Immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) stopped meeting with community groups about conditions inside the detention center, said Charlie Mulligan. Since then the private prison industry has boomed as random raids on existing immigrant communities has skyrocketed. Like the refugee populations, these individuals are held in detention without any due process and suffer from neglect during their stay. according to Juan Carlos Ruiz of the New York New Sanctuary Movement, such actions by Ice are increasingly targeting public spaces, especially in upstate New York near the border.

“There are people who have come 30 or 20 years ago, who have rooted themselves on this side [of the border], being rounded up and put in these detention centers,” Ruiz said. “a great deal of them have kids who were born and raised in the U.S.”

The New Sanctuary Movement is a faith-based effort to address the immigrant detention crisis. along with IRATE and dozens of churches and grassroots organizations, they are seeking to ratchet up the resistance to this new arm of the prison–industrial complex. a newly formed regional coalition, the Interfaith coalition for the right of Immigration Detainees and their Families, has recently been convened by the American Friends Service committee to focus these efforts. The group plans to monitor each of the detention centers in the region that imprison immigrants.

“We need to start talking to our neighbors,” said Ruiz. “Go home tonight and talk to two of your friends about what you did for Ash Wednesday! It’s time to ramp it up!”

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