Immigration detention separates migrants from their families and isolates those who desperately need security and to feel hope for their future. Breaking down this isolation is a core part of LIRS’s mission to welcome the stranger. And through the help of LIRS’s Visitation Ministry funding, hundreds around the country walk alongside detainees and offer critical compassion and encouragement. If you believe your church or organization could benefit from LIRS’s Visitation Ministry funding to start or expand ministry to immigrants in detention, please apply for funding here.
LIRS Program Fellow Sarah Harrs recently visited one man held in a detention facility in Georgia. She shares her experience in this blog post.
I followed a small family and two other volunteers into the tiny, fluorescent-lit visitor’s room. I clung to the back wall and watched as the family gathered at one window, cradling the phone as they stared through the glass at their loved one. Three men stood on the other side of the window and we three visitors hesitantly looked across at them. With only a name and an A-number [the nine digit number issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify immigrants], finding my detainee was a game of chance.
The other two volunteers sat down at the counter and I followed suit. A Latino man sat across from me. I nervously picked up the heavy black telephone attached to the wall. Would the conversation be awkward? What would two strangers talk about for an hour? “Alex?” I hesitantly asked. He smiled and nodded.
As we began talking, the guards in the room, the barbed wire, and the airport-like security suddenly melted away. We spoke about everything from Clive Cussler books to our dreams for the future. But mostly, we talked about our families. He has five sons, the eldest of whom is seven, the youngest is six months old. He hasn’t seen them in four months. Later, I pondered how quickly a baby grows. Alex has missed seeing his son roll over, sit up, and grab his first toy. His youngest son doesn’t know who he is.
Alex told me that he was brought to the United States when he was two years old. All of his siblings were born on U.S. soil, as were his children. He is the only non-citizen in his immediate family. If he is deported, he will be sent to a country he has never known and separated from his siblings, his wife, and his children for a decade or more.
Alex’s heartbreaking story is, sadly, not unusual. Every day, 34,000 immigrants are held in detention facilities around the country. LIRS partners like Lutheran Services of Georgia and El Refugio, two visitation ministries in Georgia, organize volunteers to visit with individuals in detention each week or month. They bring a little bit of hope, a little bit of the outside world, into one of the darkest and most hopeless places in this country.
Alex lived less than thirty minutes from where I went to school. We may have crossed paths years ago and never even known it. I think of that when I sit next to strangers on the bus or when I see a family crossing the street near my house. Immigrants who end up in detention facilities are not distant far away strangers. They are our neighbors. They are right in our backyard. They are the ones who bear the weight of a devastating immigration detention system.
To continue supporting visitation programs like Lutheran Services of Georgia and El Refugio, LIRS is awarding seed funding and mini-grants to individuals, congregations, and organizations interested in starting up or expanding an established visitation ministry. If your church or organization could benefit from a small grant to start, improve, or expand services to immigrants in detention I encourage you to read more about our grants opportunities here. If you are interested in joining an existing ministry and providing a compassionate presence to people going through a tragic human experience, visit www.lirs.org/visitation to learn how you can get involved.
Photo credit: Nicola Jones