BY KEVIN TUERFF | October 18, 2018

Imagine if someone kidnapped you, and then threatened to murder you. You escape, but you have no support from police to protect you. Wouldn’t you flee to save your own life?

If this happened to you, and you managed to get a visa to the U.S., and you declared asylum at JFK airport—you are then shackled and handcuffed. Your luggage is taken from you and you are forced to wear a blue prison jumpsuit. You are taken to corporate-run jail for at least six months while you await a hearing from an immigration judge. Inside, you are offered food which is often inedible. You have little access to medical care. If you are lucky, you have volunteers from a church who accompany you in detention, coming weekly for a one-hour visit. If you are lucky, you have help from a pro-bono attorney, otherwise you will likely be deported, sent back into harm’s way.

If you are granted asylum, and you are freed from this nightmare, would you return to the detention center soon thereafter to join a prayer vigil and visit other detainees? Sam, a new refugee from West Africa did just that on Sunday, September 16 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He shared his stories of the terrible conditions in detention, and also led the group in a prayer for the 400 detainees inside who are seeking freedom in the United States.

Sam, a new American who was granted asylum after spending 7 months inside the Elizabeth, NJ immigration detention center, joined the group to pray for his former detainees who remained inside the corporate-run jail. [Photo by Donald Kennedy]

Sam told those gathered, “For seven months, inside this detention center, I never saw the sun, or breathed fresh air. I was forced to flee from my home, but I never thought I would be treated like a criminal when I came to America, seeking asylum. It was torture.”

When one of the guards at the Center came outside to dissuade the group from getting close, Sam went and shook hands with his former captor. It was a powerful moment.  

More than 100 Catholics walked the 30-minute journey through a Newark, NJ warehouse district, from the nearest bus stop to Elizabeth Detention Center. [Photo by Donald Kennedy]

More than 100 parishioners of the New York City Churches of St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius participated in the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Light in the Darkness pilgrimage. They stood in solidarity with immigrants facing deportation, and with refugees seeking asylum, offering prayers and songs. Other groups participated, including the Migrant Center at St. Francis of Assisi, Catholic Worker, and Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth.

The group walked two-by-two for more than 30 minutes in the heat from the nearest transit stop, past a maze of distribution warehouses, to the corporate-run detention center. When detainees are granted asylum there, they are usually set free in the middle of the night with no assistance to find public transportation to a refugee shelter.

Teresa Carino, pastoral associate at St. Ignatius Church in New York City spoke outside Elizabeth Detention Center. [Photo by Donald Kennedy]

Fr. Dan Carrou, S.J., acting pastor at Church of St. Francis Xavier, led the group in prayer, saying, “We gather in this sea of warehouses to remember that no humans should be treated as commodities.  All humans possess dignity and a violation of the dignity of one of our companions is a violation of the dignity of all.”

Fr. Daniel Corrou, S.J., acting pastor of Church of St. Francis Xavier (New York City) led the pilgrims in prayers for the hundreds of women and men inside the immigration detention center. [Photo by Donald Kennedy]

Immigrants detained by ICE are held under civil, not criminal, law. According to the International Detention Coalition, dozens of countries only use detention as a last resort for migrants seeking refuge. They require weekly check-ins with immigration court officers or wearing of ankle bracelets.

Recent news reports have shed light on the horrific plight of migrant children also being held in detention, separated from their parents. Christ calls us to pray, and advocate for humane policy changes with Immigration Customs Enforcement.

Kevin Tuerff

Kevin Tuerff is a social entrepreneur, author and speaker. He is passionate about finding solutions for climate change and refugees. Kevin’s hometown is New York City where he is a member of the Church of St. Francis Xavier. His true story of being an American 9/11 refugee is portrayed in the Broadway musical COME FROM AWAY, and in his memoir, “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11.” He is also an ambassador for Charter for Compassion International. Follow him on Twitter @channelof_peace.

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