A Lifeline for Immigrant Detainees
The Elizabeth Detention Center, run by Corrections Corporation of America, Elizabeth, New JerseyPhoto: AFSC
As I finish off my second week here at AFSC, I have experienced something that at this point in my life I would never have thought of doing. I accompanied AFSC attorney Amelia Wilson and others to the Immigration Detention Center in Elizabeth, NJ for a day’s worth of interviews with detainees. Upon arrival, after going through security, we were directed into two separate small rooms with a plastic table and a few plastic chairs. Everything in the detention center was white, except for a mural of New York City, the Statue of Liberty, and the American flag in the background, which was an interesting image for a detention center.
The guard would call about five detainees at a time from a list to be interviewed. For the Spanish speakers (most of the detainees are Spanish or French speaking), I translated the attorney’s presentation. We explained why we were speaking to them and that we were there to offer these detainees potential legal services for free, if need be. We explained that we do not work for the government and that everything shared between the detainees and us was confidential. Some people chose to talk to us, some did not, and some already had lawyers for their cases.
After the logistical segment, we called detainees into the small interview rooms, sometimes in larger numbers and some in smaller numbers because of lack of space. We would ask them the necessary questions, usually in their native language and then we would asses their situation, and interview the immigrant. I found this to be an emotionally difficult process. For the majority of the detainees that we interviewed, the detention center in Elizabeth is their last stop before voluntary departure or deportation. I am learning that legally there are limited options to change this outcome. While we were present for only a short time, we became the detainee’s lifeline of sorts, the glimmer of hope that they had to be able to stay in the U.S. It was a heavy experience and made me realize how important this job is. While as interviewers we may not personally have known these detainees prior to the interview, after ten or fifteen minutes in the small interview room one realizes that you actually do get to know these people. During that short time one can understand their struggle, no matter what their legal status.
This visit to the Detention center was an eye-opener to say the least. This specific excursion and this job in general have given me a new outlook. When I feel like something small in my life is bothersome, it is important to think back on experiences such as these and realize that worse things could happen.
Hasta el proximo,