Sunday, August 23

Regarding Sojourners and Detainment

As many of you know, one of the ways in which I justified taking two months to myself, riding from coast to coast, was by speaking on behalf of Sojourners, a non-profit I work with in the city. I've put up links to information about Sojourners but fear not everyone who reads the blog has followed the trail to learn more, so allow me to tell you about Sojourners as well as share with you my conclusions regarding what was referred to as the mission, or what I call the justification of my journey.
Sojourners is a ministry that was started 10 years ago out of the Riverside Church. We recruit, train, transport, and mentor volunteers to visit and befriend asylum seekers and other non-criminal non-citizens held at Elizabeth Detention Center, a windowless converted warehouse near Newark Airport in New Jersey run by a private corporation, Corrections Corporation of America. Though out of the Riverside Church, only 30% of our volunteers are connected with Riverside.  The purpose for the visit is to help break the isolation and boost the morale of detainees, who may be held for months, even years before a final determination on their request for asylum is made and they are released or deported.
Why boost morale?  What do we mean by isolation?  Well, truth be told, the time before the final decision is made is often quiet dehumanizing - detainees fight detainment for long periods of time, predatory lawyers, lack of access to healthcare, separation from family, language barriers, not being allowed any time in fresh air (again, despite being non-criminals i.e. they've done nothing wrong).  We meet to combat this, to acknowledge that they are human and that they are not forgotten.
Though we have partnerships with many organizations and networks working to reform this process (Detention Watch NetworkFirst Friends/IRATE, etc.), Sojourners primarily focuses on meeting the immediate needs of detainees while also working to provide post-release relief as well - everything from helping former detainees acclimate to the city to finding housing opportunities. For example, I got to escort my friend Donzo, who was involved in a Democracy movement in an African country, to a pro bono legal clinic in Brooklyn put on by the Justice for Our Neighbors program (a non-profit run by the United Methodist Church). He had been detained 6 months longer than he should have been (often detainees are unaware of the few legal rights they do have) and since he wasn't familiar with the subway system or the english language, he needed someone to come along. Lucky me (seriously, we had a ball on the subway!).
So my intention with the ride was to talk about the issues Sojourners seeks to address, sharing with folks ways in which they can get involved. I thought this would best happen before congregations, but as I rode and realized I never knew where I was going to be in advance, "congregations" proper went out the window. Instead, it turned into talking one on one with people the whole way, face to face interactions over coffee, dinner, whatever.
When anyone finds out that you are riding your bicycle from New York City to San Francisco, one of the first things they ask you is Why? - obviously opening the door to conversation about detention each time.  This occurred with News Persons in Virginia, Pastors in Missouri, Sustainable farmers in Utah, and fellow Cyclists in Nevada.
One of the more memorable moments of sharing - or, I suppose attempting to share - the circumstances of detainment, I was in a restaurant in Eminence Missouri on the 4th of July.  Enjoying an all-you-can-eat-buffet, a great ally in my journey, I was approached by a waitress who had pieced together that I was riding to the coast (maybe it was the 6 plates she cleared from my table, maybe.)
"Are you riding for a cause?"
"Well sort of... Are you familiar with the term Asylum Seeker?"
"No," she responded with in an inquisitive tell-me-more tone.
"Well, I work with an organization called Sojourners..." Within 2.2 seconds of starting, I had lost her.  Somewhere between a full restaurant and mention of the word immigrant, she interrupted with an "Oh, sounds interesting" before turning to another table.
Was it the topic of immigration? Did she ask only seeking a quick reply? Did I fail to read that the full restaurant needed her attention before beginning with the details?  Who knows. One thing was clear though - she wasn't having it. Thankfully however, this was one of the only disinterested responses, as many people listened intently and engaged in honest dialogue. 
The funraising campaign I ran was also a great opportunity for folks to learn about Sojourners and the work we do.  Letters and emails were sent out to individuals, schools, and business opening the door to the opportunity for them to become involved in advocacy for Sojourners.  Whether they participated or not, and many did, folks heard about it and conversation about detention was generated.
Looking back, I would say most people were surprised at the plight of the asylum seeker, finding it difficult to believe that a country composed of immigrants would participate in an often dehumanizing system of detainment.  They voiced concern regarding our policies and practices despite the country's claim to be committed to those seeking asylum - it just didn't seem consistent to them.  The bottom line: it isn't consistent.
I often pointed the folks I spoke with in the direction of both my blog and the Sojourners blog. There they could find more information, links, stories, and an assortment of ways to get involved with similar work. Did they make it that far? I don't know. I hope. All I could do was tell them about my friends in detention and trust that their voiced concern was genuine, as I believe it was.  Here's for hoping things change.
Upon returning, I found I was not the only one talking about detention this summer. Apparently all summer there were several New York Times and Washington Post articles discussing the issue of detention.  Then, in early August the Obama administration released plans to revamp the way we do detention. Hoping to increase oversight, the plans give the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton, a federal overseer to each of the 23 largest detention centers, setting up an oversight unit within the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility.  In a Washington Post article, Morton states, "We need a system that is open, transparent, and accountable... With these reforms, ICE will move away from our present decentralized jail approach to a system that is wholly designed for and based on civil detention needs and the needs of the people we detain."
This is a great first step, however I agree with the many who claim the proposed reform does not go far enough.  Detention Watch Network, a coalition of community, faith-based, immigrant and human rights service and advocacy organizations, of which Sojourners is a part of, claims the overhaul falls short in its failure to address "the lack of alternative to detention and the lack of legally enforceable minimum standards for detention centers."

Find out more by following the links below.


Gruntled said...

Have you and everyone at Sojourners seen "The Visitor"? It features the Elizabeth detention center. Richard Jenkins got an Oscar nomination for the title role.

Nate Crimmins said...

Indeed. Not only did we see it, but writer/director Tom McCarthy visited with Sojourners first in order to work his experience visiting into the movie. We even got some of his set designers in who drew sketches of the visitation room to build the set. And if you go into to the real EDC, you will see the two visitation rooms look exactly like each other... I remember watching it and being like "Thats where I work!" Of course, I say 'we' but this was all before I was involved. Actually, the publicity and success of the movie caused many human rights groups to call us for info etc. so Sojourners hired me to take some of the responsibility/load. Its a neat story really. McCarthy mentions Sojourners and his experience in some interviews, but I can't find the good one.