Volunteers visit immigrants in detention

Delegatesin shape of CWFBY ELAINE KLAASSEN

Every human being has the right to live in safety with the opportunity to secure food, clothing and shelter. If these rights do not exist in the land of one’s origin, one must go in search of them. That is, it contradicts one’s survival instincts to stay in the land of one’s birth if there is only a slim chance of survival there.  Yet, a decision to leave is never made lightly. I don’t think there exist words to describe the utter upheaval known by those who move permanently from one country to another. Even under the best of circumstances, migration is a jolting experience.
Immigration is a worldwide phenomenon; the United States’ southern border is not the only one crossed. The secretary general of the U.N., in his Synthesis Report on the Post 2015 Agenda, states that worldwide “there are 232 million international migrants and almost 1 billion when internal migrants are counted.” According to the Economist magazine, from the beginning of January until mid-August of 2014, 100,000 refugees and other immigrants had poured into Italy, a country of 61 million people.  Sweden, with a reputation for openness to asylum-seekers, is struggling under the weight of its new and accumulating responsibilities. Over the past 10 years 5,000 Africans have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach southern European shores. (See the film “La Pirogue” by Moussa Touré.) Alegria, an online English-language magazine from Spain, reports that every day hundreds of people seek safety in the Spanish colonies of Melilla and Ceuta in North Africa by trying to climb the three walls separating those entities from Morocco. My friend Justina fled the Ukraine as a young teenager, in 1943, experiencing bitter cold, hunger and lice-infested clothing to finally reach safety in Germany and ultimately in Minnesota. Her nine siblings were scattered throughout Europe and the USSR. She never saw her parents again.
As horrifyingly depicted in the film “The Children of Men,” we see thousands of humans struggling to find a safe place to be. If you’re human, you have a body, and that body has to BE somewhere. Sometimes there’s no place to BE. As the world’s population escalates, fear mounts. People who are already safe have a choice: Fear or compassion. At the heart of all religious traditions lies the belief that the best results for all will be obtained through compassion—kindness to the stranger in our midst.
Rev. John Guttermann and four other clergymen sat around a table in South Minneapolis one night five years ago and, recognizing the plight of immigrants, decided there was one small thing they could do to try to help.
They established Conversations With Friends (CWF), a group of trained volunteers who visit and support detained immigrants.
At the beginning CWF was part of the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration (ICOM) but is now a separate organization. CWF volunteers come largely from affiliated congregations in the metro area (many from Mayflower Congregational Church, in South Minneapolis) and the project receives funding from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Guttermann, whose title is Covenant Minister at United Church of Christ New Brighton, is the lead in CWF and also volunteer liaison to faith communities and to The Advocates for Human Rights. CWF has 25 active volunteers statewide. There are nine new ones ready to start in a new program at the Sherburne County jail.
I met with Rev. Guttermann on a Monday morning. The night before, he and a group of volunteers had been to visit the 10 immigrants held currently in the Ramsey County jail. Volunteers don’t believe it’s criminal to migrate from one country to another, temporarily or permanently. (Article 13 (2)in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone “has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”) Volunteers also understand how hard it is to come to this country legally.
And they know that jail is hard.  Detained immigrants  suddenly find themselves separated from family, only able to visit with family by camera, and not even allowed to see them through a piece of glass; without the right to an attorney and unable to prepare a defense; suffering from daily cold in concrete buildings with constant fans and inadequate clothing; subjected to long hours of confinement.  The realities of immigrant detention were brought to the public eye when one immigrant detainee in the Sherburne County jail was assimilated into the general prison population and molested by a sexual predator with whom he shared a cell. Sometimes immigrant detainees are isolated from the rest of the prison but not always.
CWF provides a small amount of money for detainees to make phone calls and to buy a little extra food. Prices for these small things in prison are much higher than they are outside.
There are four jails in the state where immigrants are placed: Ramsey County, Sherburne County, Freeborne and Chaska. Minnesota doesn’t have separate buildings for the sole purpose of locking up immigrants as are found in some other states, such as for-profit prisons in New Mexico and Texas.
Guttermann says in four years of visiting immigrants in detention he has never seen one who could be seen as a threat to the public safety. In general, immigrants work hard, love their families, respect their neighborhoods, don’t commit crimes,  and pay their taxes. But, given our immigration system, it is almost impossible for many immigrants to live literally within the law.
The laws were pretty loose until 1996 says Guttermann and that’s how we have so many undocumented immigrants living here 20 years later, or even 30. Immigration law enforcement tightened up, especially after 9/11.
A big problem with the immigration system is that undocumented migrants in the U.S. often receive orders to report to court. But the court where they’re supposed to go is three hours away and they have no way of getting there. Or they don’t understand the importance of going. Or they will lose significant wages by taking the time to go. Also, they are afraid to go because no matter what they do there is no apparatus within our legal system whereby they can apply for citizenship. If they try to apply for citizenship, a green card or even for asylum they risk deportation.
Sometimes undocumented immigrants are arrested as a result of being stopped by the police, maybe for speeding. The officer, after looking at their records, will see that they failed to make a court appearance, for example, or that they don’t have a driver’s license, since non-citizens are not eligible to obtain driver’s licenses. Or it will come to light that they have served time in prison for a felony. If that’s the case, it’s automatic deportation even though they have paid for their crime. Many detainees are jailed as they await deportation. It’s their job to prove in court why they should have a right to stay here and it’s the government’s job to prove why they shouldn’t. There are volunteer lawyers who sometimes represent detainees but not always.
About 250 to 400 immigrants are arrested in Minnesota per month. There are 34,000 beds in U.S. jails funded by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that have to be kept filled. There’s a quota.
Although the immigration reform of last fall has made some difference for about half of the undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S., there is still a long way to go. CWF is clearly not focused on the legal and political aspects; their focus is “compassion and care for people going through an incredibly traumatic experience,” says Rev. Guttermann.
At the same time Rev. Guttermann wants it to be clear that there is an “extraordinarily broad coalition that wants immigration reform. It includes the Minnesota Council of Churches, the hospitality industry, the MN Catholic Conference, the Transform MN Evangelical group and the MN Chamber of Commerce.”  There are only 5,000 low-wage worker visas available and hundreds of thousands of jobs available. It takes sometimes as long as 20 years to process a visa. He says the $200 billion per year spent on the detention system should be spent on the workers it would take to process the paper work for millions of immigrants.
In conjunction with the work of CWF, the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration (ICOM) is training volunteers to provide another streak of comfort and kindness for immigrants, hospitality for the stranger.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Federal Whipple Building at Fort Snelling the judge hears cases of people who’ve arrived in the U.S. at the southern border since May of 2014. They’ve been detained, given court dates and released to family members in Minnesota. Almost all are unaccompanied minors and mothers with children. The judge herself gives them a lot of information and tries to be helpful as much as possible within the law.
Volunteers show support by clearly identifying who they are, and offering information on pro bono legal representatives that might be able to take a person’s case. Volunteers might also help with childcare. Their goal is to “be a friend and companion in a stressful situation.”
ICOM has been holding monthly vigils for five years outside the Ramsey County Jail to draw attention to the plight of immigrants in Minnesota.

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