[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori joined people from New Jersey and New York representing faith-based, community and immigrant rights groups on Ash Wednesday morning to begin a whole day of actions aimed at repenting the sin of immigration detention.
“When the status of immigrants is questioned, our government frequently holds them essentially incommunicado and/or moves them far away from any family and local support they might have locally,” the presiding bishop said during the vigil. “Citizens of these United States share some responsibility for those undignified and unjust practices, and our prayer today must be that hearts and minds are opened to the need for justice.
Also on Ash Wednesday, representatives of the Episcopal Church submitted written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont, for a Feb. 13 hearing on immigration reform.
“The fundamental principles of legal due process should be granted to all persons and all immigration enforcement policies should be proportional and humane, which is why the Episcopal Church has called for the immediate termination of destructive enforcement programs like Secure Communities … and the implementation of community alternatives to the costly prison-like immigration detention system,” Office of Government Relations Director Alexander Baumgarten and Katie Conway, immigration and refugee policy analyst, said in their testimony.
“Our immigration system must be transformed into a just and humane system that discerns between those who enter illegally to do us harm and those who enter because our system cannot provide them with a clear and timely path to family reunification or legal employment,” they added.
For the fourth year in a row, the morning interfaith vigil took place in Liberty State Park in Jersey City in front of the bridge to Ellis Island and in sight of the Statue of Liberty. It included members from IRATE & First Friends, Pax Christi NJ, Wind of the Spirit, American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program-Newark and NJ Advocates for Immigrant Detainees as well as recently released detainees and friends and family members of current detainees, according to a press release.
The day’s actions were a series of vigils titled “No More Silence! Awake to Justice!” meant to repent the sin of immigration detention “and the silence from the community that allows the deaths of people in detention to go unrecognized and makes it acceptable to profit from the separation of families and the exploitation of the thousands of immigrants in detention in conditions that place them at risk of psychological and physical harm,” the release said.
Jefferts Schori was joined by Roman Catholic Diocese of Newark Auxiliary Bishop Thomas A. Donato as well as Jewish and Muslim clergy.
The other New Jersey vigils were in Hackensack on the town green outside the Bergen County Court House, in Newark at the Hall of Records and later at Delaney Hall in the Essex County Jail complex, South Kearney on the street outside the Hudson County Correctional Center and at the detention center in Elizabeth.
The day was due to culminate with the annual vigil at the Elizabeth Detention Center, the for-profit facility operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) where the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency first started incarcerating immigrants almost two decades ago, the release said. This will be the 17th year that a vigil has been held in Elizabeth.
“We come to lament the injustice done to our brothers and sisters who are being harshly punished and to cry out to God,” Gene Squeo, a member of the board of Pax Christi NJ, said in the release, explaining why it was appropriate and important to gather on Ash Wednesday. “We know that God hears the cry of the poor, but we also know that detainees in New Jersey continue to cry out and our county governments profit from their pain but our community has yet to hear them.”
Local governments often earn income by housing federal detainees in their facilities.
Lorna Henkel, president of the IRATE & First Friends board of trustees said, “even though politicians in Washington seem committed to comprehensive immigration reform we see no signs that the federal government will reduce its reliance on a ballooning, financially wasteful and inhumane system, and there is no incentive for local governments in New Jersey to put the well being of immigrants in detention and their families above the revenues that it generates.”
Organizers said it the release that the history of immigration detention in New Jersey which includes “shocking deaths, a culture of secrecy there are no enforceable standards of care and no real oversight.”
“Families are separated, people are abused and sometimes they even die in detention,” said Diana Mejia, co-founder of Wind of the Spirit. “We feel morally obligated to speak out and if we cannot abolish mass immigration detention we must establish a way for members of the community to monitor conditions and end the silence and the secrecy.”
Other co-sponsors of the vigils were Casa Esperanza, Felician Sisters of North America; Office of Peace, Justice and Ecological Integrity for the Sisters of Charity of New Jersey; St. Joseph’s Social Service Center; Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, CEUS; NJ DREAM Act Coalition; Anakbayan-USA; St. Peter’s University Social Justice Program; Haiti Solidarity Network of the Northeast; Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill and Monmouth County Coalition of Immigrant Rights.