Notes from Sojourners' 10th Anniversary Celebration


Riverside's Sojourners Immigration Detention Visitor Project marked its 10th anniversary on Sunday, December 6, 2009, with reflections from visitors and former detainees, premiere of a new 15-minute documentary about Sojourners, and a high-level presentation on the U.S. government's plans to reform the nation's immigration detention system.

Keynoter Phyllis Coven, Acting Director for Detention Policy and Planning for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Washington, D.C., traced the explosive growth of immigration detention from the early 1990s, when there were 5,500 beds nationwide, to today when there are 32,000.

Describing the current situation, 55 percent of the beds are in federally run or contract facilities, and the rest in county jails and prisons, Coven said. More than 440,000 immigrants will have spent time in detention this year, according to Detention Watch Network. Even though immigration detention's purpose is not to punish -- rather, it is administrative, to make sure people show up for their hearings -- it has grown up using a penal model. "Our places look and operate like jails," she acknowledged. "We want to get away from that."

In September of this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) undertook a comprehensive review of the immigration detention system and developed recommendations for reform. Janet Napolitano, U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security, and John T. Morton, DHS Assistant Secretary for ICE, "went out on a limb early and said, 'We want to reform immigration detention,'" Coven said. She was hired this fall to implement the recommendations.

Sojourners' particular concern has been asylum seekers arrested upon arrival and detained for months, sometimes years pending final determination of their claim of persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries because of their religion, political opinion, race, nationality or membership in a particular social group.

"During the past decade, we have recruited, trained, transported and mentored volunteer visitors to asylum seekers and other non-criminal non-citizens held at area detention centers," said Sojourners chair and co-founder Carol Fouke-Mpoyo. "We have matched hundreds of visitors with hundreds of men and women without friends or family in the vicinity to visit them for a sustained, one-on-one relationship whose purpose is simply to break their isolation, extend friendship and boost their morale."

A Sunday panelist, Dr. Allen Keller, Director of the Bellevue Center for Survivors of Torture, thanked The Riverside Church and its Sojourners detention visitors, saying, "What you do is a life-saving intervention, nothing short of that."

Sojourners visitors have witnessed the prison-like conditions in which immigration detainees -- some of them torture survivors, some of them as young as 18 -- are held.

Former detainee Anthony Krakue described the conditions at the Elizabeth (N.J.) Detention Center, a windowless converted warehouse, during Sunday morning's Minute for Mission. As many as 44 people per "dorm" spend 22-23 hours a day in the same room, where they sleep, eat and try to pass the time watching TV or playing the few board games. Showers and toilets are open to view. One hour daily of "outdoor recreation" actually is in a room with a skylight. Detainees wear surgical scrub-like uniforms. Detainees and visitors are separated by plexiglas.

At the close of the Sunday afternoon program, Sojourners' Fouke-Mpoyo said that, after witnessing detainees' suffering for a decade now, she was heartened by the DHS recommendations for detention reform. She said, "I hope we look back on today and say, 'We shared a historic moment, right at the turning point.' Ms. Coven, let us know how we can help you so that you can move faster with reform."

Other panelists on Sunday represented Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Detention Watch Network, and Sojourners (Rev. David Fraccaro, coodinator for the past four years and recently ordained at Riverside). The more than 80 audience members included representatives of more than 15 outside organizations and institutions, ranging from Amnesty International to the New Sanctuary Movement, from the Fellowship of Reconciliation to the American Friends Service Committee, and included reporters from The New York Times, Associated Press, Huffington Post (story at Huffington Post) and El Diario (story at El Diario).