Throughout the United States, Catholics are commemorating National Migration Week from Jan. 6 to 12. Below, a friar who helped found a center to assist immigrants, describes the struggles experienced by many people who seek safety and a new life. The theme of this year’s week is “Building Communities of Welcome.”
Every month, volunteers from the Migrant Center at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, its partner parish, St. Francis Xavier, and First Friends of New York and New Jersey visit detainees at the Elizabeth Immigration Detention Center in Elizabeth, N.J.
This immigration detention center, run by CoreCivic, a private provider of corrections and detention services, houses 320 women and men detainees. In December, I volunteered to be the lead person for the end of the year visits. Within a three-hour span, I was able to visit three detainees, one from Honduras, another from Tibet and a third from Africa.
We were instructed not to refer to the detainees as inmates or prisoners, but as friends – we were their “visiting friends.” We were not to give legal advice, or touch on sensitive issues like the crimes that brought them there, or any matters that might jeopardize their cases. We were simply there to provide a friendly presence.
The African man with whom I visited had a very interesting reaction to our instruction to refer to them as friends rather than inmates or prisoners. “Here,” he said, “we are treated as prisoners. The guards conduct headcounts at 8 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m., midnight and 3 a.m. During the counts, we are told to stay in our beds, or sit or stand up next to them. We are given limited time for outside recreation. Worst of all, when you get sick, they bring you to the hospital — in chains. One man here became so ill, he could hardly walk, but still they chained him when they brought him to the hospital. The man could hardly walk. Did they really think he would try to escape? Why did they put him in chains? It happened to me too. I was sick, and they brought me to the hospital in chains. People at the hospital were staring at me as if I were a criminal. It was degrading, to say the least!”
Abdul (not his real name), the African man I visited, spoke fluent English. He is married and has two children. In Africa, he practiced law and belonged to an organization of human rights lawyers. When this organization began exposing abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the government, one by one, members of the organization disappeared. Some were found dead while others were summarily executed in public.
Fearing for his life, Abdul fled his home country. As soon as he arrived at JFK Airport, he informed the customs officers that he was seeking asylum. Right away, ICE handcuffed him, and, after a long process, he ended up at Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey.
Abdul is entering his sixth month in detention with no sure immigration relief in sight. He is depressed because, according to authorities, he does not qualify for a parole. He has a lawyer working on his case, but it seems like it is taking forever. He has not spoken to his wife and children in six months. He will be spending New Year’s Eve in his “dormitory” along with other detainees.
He asked me a question that really hit me hard. He asked, “How does New York City look like?” Without thinking, I replied, “Haven’t you seen it? Haven’t you been to Manhattan?” He said, “No. As soon as I landed, I was processed and handcuffed. And they whisked me here.” His question weighed heavily on my heart because, for me, this is what it looks like when someone is stripped of his rights and dignity. This is what it’s like to be powerless and dehumanized.
His question stayed with me and led me to ask myself: Am I missing something? What defines the Big Apple? The hassle and bustle of life here? The jungle of skyscrapers? The diversity of people who live and work in the city? ‘How does it look like?’ Abdul was not asking me to describe the physical features of the city — he was reminding me about what I miss and take for granted. Later a few quick responses came to mind: the American Dream that so many in the world covet, relative democracy, and what our Declaration of Independence promises, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is why people came to America, this is why people made America.
Toward the end of our visit, we exchanged pleasantries, and I left Abdul with an unthinking “Happy New Year!” He smiled back and said, “I am Muslim, but I think it is okay. We all believe in one God anyway.” I’m so touched by his conviction. This man, detained and stripped of his rights, was steadfast in his belief in a God-for-all!
Searching for Life and Security
What is my take-away from this sad but inspiring visit? The visit reminds me and keeps me focused on the reality that people move, leaving their loved ones and their home countries, in search of “life and security.” When one’s own government cannot offer a stable life because of poverty, unemployment and lack of basic necessities – people move! When one’s own government cannot provide basic safety or responds with violence or public execution when people assert their human rights – people move!
Encounters like these strengthen my resolve to continue to advocate for migrants and refugees. These encounters make clear the ministry of presence. These visits bring hope and encouragement to those who are detained. It really boosts their spirits to know that there are people outside who think of them, pray for them and support them.
Personally, this visit and my work with the Migrant Center at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi have added a new dimension to my life as a Franciscan friar. The words of Jesus in the Gospel, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers (and sisters), you did to me,” become real.
As a friar, this experience embodies what it means to bring glad tidings to those in darkness. In this case, I offer my presence to, and I advocate for, those who sit in the dark uncertainty of current U.S. immigration policies.
— Fr. Julian, a native of the Philippines, is director of the Migrant Center of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in New York City. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, by Fr. Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM, was titled “Roots of the Nativity Tradition.”
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources section of HNP.org.
- Justice and Peace section of HNP.org
- “Pursuit of Life, Liberty at Heart of Migration Issue” by Julian Jagudilla, OFM – June 17, 2016, HNP Today
- “’Stand Up, Immigrants’ Campaign Launched” – June 8, 2018, HNP Today
- “Franciscans Stand With Immigrant Brothers and Sisters” – May 24, 2017, HNP Today
- “Migrant Center Celebrates Three0-year Anniversary” – Dec. 14, 2016, HNP Today