A Welcome Beyond Handcuffs and Detention

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Anna Campbell shares with us her recent experience in New York City where she met with several former detainees and the volunteer programs that serve them. Anna is National Network Coordinator of  Access to Justice, LIRS’s unit that promotes access to the justice system, immigration benefits, and legal protection to immigrants and refugees, with particular attention to the most vulnerable, such as asylum seekers, torture survivors and those in immigration detention.

I started a new job four weeks ago. I am working with a team of folks to eliminate the unnecessary detention of immigrants in the US. If you’ve read the news or listened to NPR within the last few months, I’m sure you’ve caught wind of the topic. It’s a popular one. It’s a controversial one. And it’s one that needs a lot more attention. In an effort to better understand the reality of individuals negatively impacted by immigration detention, I went to New York City. My goal for this May 18th field trip was to listen. To learn. I wanted to hear from and see the faces of people directly affected by this country’s unnerving response to migration. I wanted to know how communities, volunteers, congregations and advocates are accompanying people seeking protection in the US. I have seen and started to assume a lot, mostly negative things, about US immigration detention policy, and I needed to be face-to-face with its reality. In this new position, I have been tasked with saving the world and figured New York was a good place to start.

With the generous help of friends at Sojourners, a few colleagues and I met individuals who have been wronged by US immigration detention. I heard six different people share a piece of their life story that forced them to flee their homes. Their countries were unsafe and they were made to choose between life and death. They chose life and thought the US would keep them safe, however, quickly found out that “safety” in the US is often met with handcuffs and detention. Each came to the US and was immediately locked away by immigration officials because they said “asylum” to the wrong person at the airport. Did I mention they were smiling while they spoke to us? They were. Me on the other hand, I was angry. I realize anger isn’t necessarily helpful or productive, but I couldn’t help feeling utterly frustrated by the injustice. I cannot imagine what I would feel if I’d been arbitrarily thrown into detention after losing loved ones to war and escaping years of genocide in my homeland. Smiling, telling complete strangers of a past they’d like to forget. Humbling, to say the least.

We also spoke with volunteers throughout the city who organize visits into detention facilities and provide hospitality to asylum seekers as they are released into the community. In 1999, a group of concerned church members put their heads together and founded the Riverside Church Sojourners Detention Center Visitor Project. Volunteers visitors go into detention facilities to “help break the isolation and boost the morale of detained immigrants, who may be held for many months before a final determination on their request for asylum is made and they are released or deported.” Sojourners members, in collaboration with First Friends out of New Jersey, spend multiple hours a month meeting with detained folks, simply to talk and offer a connection to the outside world. Sojourners has more recently started coordinating support for individuals upon release from immigration detention. In partnership with other providers throughout the city, Sojourners finds housing and basic needs for asylum seekers who do not have family or friends in the vicinity to help them. They literally wait on the other side of locked facility gates to greet people as they are freed from detention. Volunteers transport released individuals to a safe home, offer basic social services and support as they embark on their life in America. It’s pretty incredible, really.

The government opens the door of a detention facility, and says bye to someone who may or may not speak English and has probably never stepped foot in New York City. (That part isn’t incredible so much as disgusting, but just wait.)  Right on the other side of the door is a community volunteer looking to help him/her find a place to sleep and a warm meal, and after a night’s rest and a full stomach that same volunteer will help him/her learn English and find family members in California that they haven’t talked to in years. Whatever life may bring, whatever need arises, that volunteer will do whatever he/she can to stand alongside, be a friend to and empower the asylum seeker as they make their own way in the US.

There are over 8 million people from all walks of life living in New York City. It’s the most densely populated city in the US. 305 square miles of land. Some say nearly 800 different languages are spoken within its five boroughs. Miles of storefront, thousands of food trucks, Broadway productions, taxis and tourists on every corner, and I would guess a person from every country in the world currently resides in this city. Before this trip, I didn’t know where Riverside Church was. I did not truly understand what groups like Sojourners, First Friends, Seafarer and Christ House do. Beyond the potential for spending loads of money on food and new shoes, this city has a lot to offer. A lot to offer a lot of people. New York is great. I didn’t save the world, but I did meet some wonderful people making a serious difference in the lives of others.


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