Seven years ago, on a cold day in December 2009, I entered Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, N.J. — a minimum-security prison on a pilgrimage organized by the Interfaith Center of New York and Human Rights First. This one-day journey ushered me into the story of immigrants in the New York and New Jersey area, and changed my life.
Immigrants without papers are picked up at JFK Airport, off the street, or taken from their families without warning and taken to Elizabeth Detention Center. They mark time behind bars in cinderblock cells. But they are not criminals. They look like you and me — just replace the suit or the jeans, sweater, and colorful scarf with a standard issue blue jumpsuit.
"Everyone is equal here," our guide, the Homeland Security officer who saw operations at the prison, said.
I sat in the segregation cell — the place where women and men are held if they try to steal an extra piece of cake — and I imagined what it would be like to spend two days there, the average stay in that cell. I could not. I could not imagine two hours. I looked to my left — on the cot, where the prisoner would lay his head, fingernails or forks had etched evidence of humanity: "Cuba 2007 Habana," "Albania," "Guinea Africa 2003."
Across the room, next to the door, was a crude warped mirror, so thin it looked like it was taped to the wall over a simple sink. I stared at my reflection in solitary confinement ... and then, in front of my face, but hidden from plain view, I looked beyond myself and I found evidence of humanity etched into the mirror.
"It not finished yet," a nameless immigrant had written.
"Be strong. God loves you. You don't believe that this is bad there are things more bad."
We passed by the "outdoor” recreation facility —a cinderblock room with a caged roof. This is the only place where immigrants can breathe fresh air and see the color of the sky between the wires of this crude cage.
As we passed by the property room, tears filled my eyes. Fully-packed suitcases — the kind you see on airport baggage claim conveyor belts — stood upright, lay on their sides, lay face down. Stored on steel shelves, like their owners are stored within steel cages within the same building.
As we passed the women — white, black, Latino, Asian — they sat behind glass like fish in a bowl, and looked down, avoiding eye contact.
As we passed by the exit, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) had that day’s stock price proudly posted on the bulletin board: "20.22." I wept.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this initial pilgrimage of mine, into the story of immigrants caught in our detention system. That journey laid the foundation for every decision that I’ve made since then to engage the issue of immigration reform. It informed my decision two years later to exercise civil disobedience in response to the threat of anti-immigrant legislation, like Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, spreading into New York. It informed my decision to join the Fast for Families two years after that. There I sat, within the sanctuary of a white tarp tent on the National Mall, fasting from all food and feasting on the stories of immigrant mothers, fathers, brothers, cousins. In those stories, we found communion.
As we listened, we took in and became a part of each other’s stories.
Stories are gifts. They are shared from the heart, taken into the soul, and they transform us from the inside out.
According to a recent Pew Center study, nearly 90 percent of Americans currently identify as people of some faith, from Christian to religious but unaffiliated. Over the next three months, these faithful will choose our nation’s future immigration story. Either they will choose a path that exponentially multiplies the misery in the stories of images of God ensnared in the U.S. for-profit deportation industrial complex, or faith will move Americans to counter fear and forge a new story that fixes our broken immigration system, heals shattered families, and lifts oppression from the shoulders of abused and exploited images of God within our borders.
Not everyone can tour a detention center or fast in a tent on the National Mall. The tour of Elizabeth Detention Center was organized for 10 interfaith leaders in New York City, and only 300 people were able to visit the fasting tent in late 2013.
But there are 300 million people who call the United States home. While the masses will likely never see the inside of a detention center in person, they can enter the stories of immigrants through their stories.
Sojourners acquired a new portal, Onward, to help bring the masses — people like you and your faith communities — on a virtual pilgrimages into the stories of immigrants. Onward is an excellent resource, featuring a bevy of films that document the stories of immigrants and resources around those films to help communities go deeper.
Watch the films with your community. Lead Bible studies around each film. Go deeper by learning how the issues dealt with in the film and bible study are working their way out through our immigration policy. Then find out how your community can take effective action to change the stories of immigrants in America.
This month we asked several immigration reform organizers who are also faith leaders to reflect on how they might use Onward as a resource to help faith communities change our national story. Check out reflections from Alexia Salvatierra, Maria Jose (Cote) Soerens, and Dr. Danny Carroll Rodas. Then go here to move our nation Onward.