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“God Is With Them”: Meet The Faith Leaders Who Comfort Distraught Immigrant Families In Detention

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As the first GOP Presidential debate approaches next week, immigration is sure to become a heated — and contentious — topic among the Republican candidates, many of whom are verging to the far-right on immigration in an attempt to woo primary voters.

But we know it’s about so much more than just politicking here. Immigration isn’t just an economic or political issue — it’s a moral issue, and it involves real human lives.

Perhaps it’s why voters of faith favor immigration reform and a full, humane overhaul of our broken system by a 2:1 margin. One of the loudest voices of faith urging compassionate treatment of immigrants has long been Pope Francis, who once wrote:

“We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.”

And when Pope Francis visits the United States this fall to address a historic joint session of Congress, he is widely expected to address the issue, too (perhaps Speaker Boehner, a Catholic and Congressional leader who could call a vote on immigration reform today, will listen).

In a beautiful (and oftentimes heartbreaking) piece, Esther Lee of ThinkProgress lifts up some of the ordinary — and not so ordinary — faith leaders who not only stand in solidarity with immigrants, but also provide important counseling for the hundreds of immigrant families sitting in detention facilities all across the country:

When Sister Kathleen Erickson arrived in March to serve as the interim chaplain at a family detention facility in Texas, the center only held about 400 women and children. One weekly mass was sufficient for Catholic, Pentecostal, and Evangelical needs. By the time Erickson left in late May, the population had swelled to more than 1,000 women and children, and she helped coordinate religious services in two designated chapels each week.

Over the past year, the South Texas Family Residential Center (STFRC) was built up in response to the border surge of Central American migrant mothers and children fleeing violence and poverty. And during her time as chaplain, Erickson became one of the few signs of normalcy and one of the most trusted people for detained women and children being held there.

Erickson’s role was to offer “spiritual counseling” and to encourage detainees to use designated spaces for prayer. She noticed that women who had most recently arrived at the detention facility were the most distressed. Some women vented their frustrations to her, while others asked her why God had abandoned them.

“I don’t want to take their faith away from them, but I don’t want to go with, ‘this is God’s will,’” Erickson told ThinkProgress. “This is law. This is technicalities. This is people. We have not learned as people to take care of each other. …God wants you to be happy. This is not a punishment. Sometimes I’m a little afraid that what they’re thinking is, ‘we didn’t get through and that’s what God wants happen to us.’”

In one case, a very distraught woman came to Erickson asking for help obtaining legal services. Erickson later announced her advice to a larger group of women after mass, telling them that they could access free lawyers without appointments. She also walked with them to the offices set up for legal services.

But government officials are not always happy when faith leaders like Erickson take on this role.

“Within a short amount of time, I got a call from my contact at the Department of Homeland Security,” Erickson recalled, stating that the woman brought a male colleague and that they were “very stern” in response to her taking a group of women over to the area where the lawyers were. “They said that is not your purview. Your job is to deal with the religious needs of the women. I told them that she was referred to me because she was so upset and that was her religious need. I was told to stay out of anything related to their cases. I knew that that was wrong. And they knew that that was wrong and they were trying to tell me not to do that again.”

After that, Erickson said she was “even more intent” on making sure that women knew how to get in touch with lawyers and spread the word about their legal rights among other detainees.

Since Erickson’s departure as interim chaplain, the Obama administration has started releasing migrant mothers and children from family detention centers like Dilley. The release is in response to a federal judge’s ruling that detaining children violates a 1997 settlement requiring children to be held in the least restrictive setting possible.

But even as family detention centers have recently come under intense criticism for its treatment of migrants, other adult immigration facilities remain open and continue to operate without the same level of scrutiny. There, religious leaders also have a role to play.

Sister Karen Donahue, the justice coordinator at the Sisters of Mercy West-Midwest Unity, is a frequent immigrant detainee visitor through the Justice for our Neighbors program at the Monroe County Jail in Monroe, Michigan. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) run facility can hold up to 160 immigrant detainees, though there are about 90 people there on average every day, an Immigration Detention Justice Center report found.

Donahue is not a chaplain, but she works as part of an interdenominational group of about seven or eight members who visit immigrants at Monroe every second and fourth Thursdays in two-hour blocks. She makes clear to the immigrants that she can’t provide legal advice, but can provide support, friendship, and even snacks.

“These people are so filled with faith and I’ve just been so moved in the situations that they’re in,” she said. “The people I talk to feel close to God and feel that God is with them. It’s very humbling to encounter this incredible faith in these very difficult situations.”

One story that particularly affected Donahue during her time in Monroe occurred just a month ago. “A 18-year-old from Honduras who’s been in this country since he was six or seven years ago was picked up a couple days after graduation,” Donahue said. “When I went back two weeks later, he was deported. He had no criminal record.”

With Donahue, Catholic detainees at the Monroe County Jail receive liturgy readings twice a month and Evangelicals have Bible studies. But while immigrants of other faith traditions are represented in the detainee population at Monroe, it’s harder to accommodate Muslims, Buddhists, and Jangs. In those cases, those detainees may come to Donahue for one-on-one special sessions.

This is an issue across the country. Christina Fialho, the co-executive director at the immigrant detainee advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), told ThinkProgress via email that religious accommodations have proved problematic in various detention centers. Her CIVIC team regularly fields requests for more Qurans, and Muslims across the country express concerns that there aren’t Imams to lead Islamic worship services.

“Muslims routinely face impediments, such as arbitrary lockdowns, that prevent them from freely convening every Friday for prayer,” Fialho noted. “Muslim men have even been thrown into solitary for saying their daily prayers.”

Though Donahue’s and Erickson’s presences may help pass the time in detention, the goal of many immigrants is to leave.

“Many immigrants want to be with their families,” Donahue said. “One man basically wanted to be deported so that he could just come back. People have been deported more than once and if they come back after they’ve been deported, they face much more serious trouble.”

But as long as immigrants continue to be detained, faith leaders say they have an important role to play in staying positive and standing in solidarity with immigrants. Donahue, for instance, holds a vigil every Wednesday morning outside the local DHS office while holding a sign that reads, “God’s love has no borders. Immigration reform must be just.”