Witness at Boston Immigrant Detention Center
May 6, 2012. The Boston New Sanctuary Movement organized a vigil outside the Middlesex Correctional Facility. Since Massachusetts does not have detention centers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts with community prisons to hold the detainees. This facility currently has close to 300 undocumented persons. Standing on the Side of Love was there in full force.
Two kids. About 12 and 9. A girl and a boy. Crying inconsolably. Hugging their moms. We rub their backs, try to comfort them. And, we are crying with them – tears or no tears!
Just before this: One of the mothers is on the microphone. You cannot ignore her voice even if you are deaf. Never mind if you – like me – don’t know Spanish. Her fury and exasperation is flowing out of every pore of her body. Her small body is shaking, trembling. She says, now in English: “Jesus; I love you. I love you for you.” Jesus is her husband’s name. No más deportaciones, she cries. We all take up the chant. No Mas Deportacions! No more deportations!
We are a group of some fifty people, gathered in South Boston, on a beautiful spring Sunday, right outside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility. It is a big and imposing building. I have driven past it on the Southeast Expressway many times, but never had any idea what it was. Here I am now with many others, facing the building.
We chant, we sing, we pray. We read the names of more than a hundred who have died in detention; the last one, right here at this very facility. Their only crime: they did not have their “papers.” Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo, minister at the UU Church of Marblehead, reminds us that, except for the Native Americans, we are all immigrants. The Pilgrims arrived with no documents either, I recall.
While the Obama administration has stated that ICE will focus on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes, and not break up families, last month the Department of Homeland Security released a report that flatly belies this policy. From January to June 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 46,486 undocumented parents who claimed to have at least one child who is an American citizen. The extraordinary acceleration in the dismantling of these families, part of the government’s efforts to meet an annual quota of about 400,000 deportations, has had devastating results. Children of these families experience psychological and economic disruptions, including housing and food insecurity, and anxiety, frequent crying, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal and anger. In the long run, the children of deportation face increased odds of lasting economic turmoil, psychic scarring, reduced school attainment, greater difficulty in maintaining relationships, social exclusion and lower earnings. (See The New York Times April 20, 2012 ‘Deporting Parents Hurts Kids‘)
We start marching, shouting slogans. We are at the back of the building, along a major roadway. Some people inside the Facility see us. They wave to us; they pound on the windows. Our spirits are lifted: they know we are here. We hope their spirits are lifted too; there is support outside. We march on, cross a little street, go up some stairs, walk on to a bridge. Now we are face to face with the Facility – only some 250 feet separate us. We chant slogans. We wave our hands. We wave our signs. We are communicating in a language we know not; it must be the language of love!
There are fifteen or so windows in front of us. Some seem to have only one or two people; others seem to be packed. Waving, pounding, they try to look outside the windows. We can barely make out their faces, but we can see their hands and arms. And make out human forms. It is all blurry, except for the inhumanity of the incarceration!
Does anyone want to say anything to the detainees inside? Yes, this woman does, someone shouts.
She comes charging forward. She is from Guatemala. She takes the microphone and with a sincerity and force you will never ever see at a political event, starts speaking. I am right behind her. She is forceful. Her voice is strong but full of pain. I don’t understand the words, but I want to reach out and hug her. We are with you, Sister, don’t worry. We will reunite you with Jesus, I want to say. But I just put my hand on her shoulder. She keeps going.
Cars drive by on the road. A few honk. Others pay no attention.
She talks for some five minutes. Now she is sobbing. Julie, a divinity student, comes forward; she knows Spanish and can speak with her. Jesus was picked up some two weeks ago. He is not in good health. Heart and kidney problems. Dear God – this does not sound too good, I say to myself. Doctor? Not, not yet, but next week; they’ve promised him. I ask her if she has a lawyer; yes, she says. Does she needs any help – in any way, can any of the groups present here do anything. No, thank you; she is just very grateful that people have come out in support of the detainees. She does not need anything.
The boy comes, hugs her, starts to cry. Another woman is coming forward, distraught but smiling. Her husband is also in there. No, she does not want to say anything. Her daughter is hugging her, crying.
Across the street, in one of the windows, they have put up a sign, one letter at a time: FREE US.
We disperse. I don’t know where the two women came from. I don’t know how they heard about this vigil but organizers from Centro Presente are with us so they may have connected us all. I don’t know what their life has been like. I have so many questions, but no vocabulary to talk with them.
I get back to the comfort of my home and my family. Wonder what they are doing? Wonder what they are thinking?
And: How long will this insanity go on? How long will we – all of us – let it go on.
Rashid Shaikh is a member of First Parish Cambridge Unitarian Universalist Immigration Task Force.
For more information on how to connect with interfaith groups and others conducting vigils, find a New Sanctuary Movement chapter near you (there’s no national website currently, so search for your city on the web) and Grassroots Leadership. Congregations and individuals can join the UUA in the interfaith campaign Restoring Trust: Breaking ICE’s Hold on our Communities to stop the ICE ‘Secure Communities’ mass detention and deportation program.