On this blog, I try to share both my thoughts and those of others standing for welcome at LIRS and nationwide. Today, I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS with Erin Hustings, Detention Visitation Coordinator out of River Road Universalist Unitarian Congregation in the Washington, D.C. area. Her observations, shared via email, are informed by the insights of other members of the Detention Visitation Network steering committee, including Sean Kelly of Jesuit Refugee Service.
Immigration detention and alternatives to current policies are central to any discussion of immigration reform. For many, it can be hard to grasp the breadth and severity of America’s immigration enforcement system, but stories of substandard conditions and human rights abuses are all too common. Detention visitation is a critical way that members of communities and congregations are alleviating some of the human suffering that results from detention.
Luke Telander (LT): What experiences motivated you to first get involved in detention visitation?
Erin Hustings (EH): I notice that for many people, it’s personal experiences with the detention system that motivate deeper involvement. Some colleagues are torture survivors or close to torture survivors, and see similarities, I believe, between that experience and immigration detention. I’m a child of an immigrant, have been encouraged to be conscious of an immigrant perspective, and have been an immigrant myself abroad, so it’s engrained in me to be interested in how immigrants are received in the United States. Immigration detention is the most troubling aspect of that – the one that I most want to do something about. For a number of years I’ve been interpreting for and representing torture survivors, and when I learned about the existence and growth of the detention program, I wanted to be a source of support for immigrants in detention as well.
LT: Can you tell us a little bit about a typical visitation experience?
EH: In some ways I don’t think there is a typical experience, which says a lot about detention. You can find detainees in any and every state of mind, from happy to see you and grateful for the distraction from every day life in detention, to worried or depressed or angry. It’s intimidating to go through the security procedures that gain you entry to a jail or detention center. There’s such a stark contrast between the degree of security and austerity in these physical spaces on one hand, and the people you meet who are being held in the center on the other, who are just like people you’d meet in everyday life – people you’d work with, exchange pleasantries with in public, or know because your children went to the same school. The experience typically makes you question and wonder at the detention system anew. It’s hard to walk away from the problems and concerns in a detention center, and to know that there’s not much you can do to help with most of the problems you hear about.
LT: What has been the most surprising thing you have run into in your work?
EH: I actually think the most surprising thing of all is that this enormous detention system has been cobbled together at such great cost, and even as state and local governments are starting to figure out some of the drawbacks of mass incarceration, I’m not sure I see the connection being made to the drawbacks of mass immigration detention. Its architects in Congress have heard well enough to know that the expense is great, and that community-based alternative monitoring programs go a long way to ensuring that people appear for and participate in immigration court proceedings at far less cost and suffering. But the knowledge doesn’t seem to have inspired action yet – it’s hard to mitigate the zeal in Congress for more and stronger immigration enforcement.
LT: How is detention visitation a part of living out your faith?
EH: From a Christian perspective, there is much that motivates me to visit immigrants in detention. First, there is a strong basis in scripture for having compassion and love for foreigners and those in prison. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people were commanded to have a special concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. While there are numerous references to assisting the stranger in the Pentateuch, the most compelling for me is Leviticus 19: 33-34. “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God.” The Gospel that Jesus proclaimed with his life and ministry did not abrogate this concern for the stranger. In the Judgement of Nations in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explains that those who will inherit the kingdom are the people who help others. Specifically in Matthew 25:35, he says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Detention visitation expressly lives out two of the actions commanded by Christ – welcoming the stranger and visiting those in prison. In addition to scripture, precepts of Ignatian spirituality further encourage me to visit those in detention. In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the First Principle and Foundation proclaims that “The goal of our life is to live with God forever.” The way one achieves this goal is the loving use of God’s gifts. I consider visiting detained immigrants a reflection of God’s love because it has the potential to give them some measure of hope in an otherwise bleak situation.
LT: What is the one thing you think everyone should know about the current U.S. detention system?
EH: It is so hard on anyone to be imprisoned, but imagine how much harder that is when you’re in a foreign country, and not even charged with or suspected of any crime! Detention is a serious punishment that we’re inflicting, and the consequences extend far and wide to families and others who rely on the people we detain. Above all, I think it’s important that more people just realize we’re doing this in the first place, and on a grand scale – 30,000+ people every night, and perhaps more than 400,000 total in any given year, at a cost of billions.
LT: Why should someone interested in immigration reform think about volunteering in visitation?
EH: While we work long-term toward justice, we can’t forget the most immediate reason for the struggle – the people who are suffering today as a result of unfortunate policy choices. Some of those who are suffering the most acutely are the immigrants who are detained and robbed of their autonomy and self-sufficiency. In a way, visitation is like emergency-response work – one of the most critical, life-saving ways to show care for a brother or sister, to be a person who loves and who makes the world a better place.
Thank you for reading. Feeling motivated to act? You can speak out for alternatives to detention at the LIRS Action Center.