Who Would Jesus Deport?
Several Unitarian Universalist churches in the Seattle/Tacoma area have an ongoing social witness via vigils at the front gate of the Northwest Detention Center on rotating Saturdays of each month. Coffee, cookies, printed information, and caring encouragement and listening are provided to family and friends visiting persons in detention. Two members of Seattle’s University Unitarian Church are also developing a volunteer visitation program for one-on-one visits with persons in detention who request personal visits.
Each of these actions reveals ongoing efforts end bigotry and oppression against people because of their identity. The federal policy is to incarcerate undocumented immigrants for months while they await a hearing, which usually results in deportation. Many of these detention centers are owned and operated by private, for-profit corporations who annually receive millions of tax dollars for warehousing immigrants.
The Northwest Detention Center, the third largest in the United States, can house up to 1,579 persons arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It is owned and run by The Geo Group, Inc., a privately run prison business. The facility is designed for short-term detention, but immigrants are held for an average of 35-60 days and as long as 4 years while defending their right to stay in the United States.
The Fifth Annual Mother’s Day Weekend Vigil at the Northwest Detention Center on May 11, co-sponsored by the Washington New Sanctuary Movement and the Oregon Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, shed particular light on this injustice.
A spirited gathering of about 200 people was heavily peppered with Standing on the Side of Love shirts, caps, yard signs, and banners. Participants walked the length of the street-side fence singing “Standing, standing, we are standing on the side of love.” Joining in this vigil were numerous Unitarian Universalists from Vashon Island, Tacoma, Seattle, Bellevue, and Kirkland.
Michael Ramos, director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, reminded us of the need to reform, and ultimately end, the system of raids, detention, and deportation. Last year alone, 400,000 deportations took place and 32,000 persons were held in detention on any given night at taxpayer expense. He said, “This is a shame and a scandal. These are human casualties of a global and a universal phenomenon… Immigration is a human phenomenon, but the barriers, walls, and bars are political. The ultimate family value is to re-unite all families. All this loss, separation, fear, and violence must stop.”
Rev. Marian Stewart of Northlake UU Church in Kirkland gave the keynote address, noting that the timing of this vigil coincided with Mother’s Day, which originated in 1870 as Juliet Ward Howe asked all mothers to wake up to the carnage all around, to arise in peace, and to start to care for everyone.
Rev. Marian pointed out that the vigil should focus our attention on the separation of families and the suffering that immigrants are experiencing. She also called attention to the critical importance of witnessing the devastating trauma to spouses and children when families are fragmented by the current detention policies and the need for us to work to get policies changed.
In a ceremony with various participants naming and ringing a bell for each of 131 persons who have died while in immigration custody, she pointed out that the lives of those who have died will not go unnoticed because “we are here today to be their witness.”
Participants heard stories from adult immigrants and DREAMers who shared their thoughts and feelings about the emotional and physical hardships their families have been experiencing. They also spoke of their deep appreciation for those who stand on the side of love, providing encouragement, accompaniment through the legal procedures, and who actively work to get the oppressive policies changed or eliminated.
Interfaith efforts continue in the Seattle metro area to create change in the procedures of local law enforcement officers who arrest undocumented immigrants who may only have a busted tail light or cracked windshield, who have witnessed a crime, or have been the victim of domestic violence. The voluntary transfer of persons into immigration custody who have committed no crime at all or only low level offenses can be stopped if public outcry creates pressure for local authorities to change their procedures.
This post was written by Suzanne Grogan. Susan is a member of Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirkland, Washington.
Interested in getting involved in similar efforts in your own area? Click here to find your local New Sanctuary Movement chapter and watch our webinar on detention visitation programs.