Monday, June 22, 2009

Join the Broadview Detention Center Friday morning vigils

There are no illegal people, we are sisters, sons and wives.
There are no illegal people, all are precious in God’s sight.

- song by Dave Martin, sung between each prayer offered

The expected flagpole stands before the entrance of the Broadview Detention. A frayed American flag stuck at ¾ mast, is tangled among too-close tree branches. A poignant image that, for an immigration policy mired and frayed by fear, resentment and racism. The current economic crisis adds more anxiety to the mix. We need comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform, and soon. This broken system is tearing us up.

It’s also tearing the lives of immigrants and their families.

Out of solidarity, in the early morning June 12th, I joined about 40 others in the weekly ecumenical and interfaith vigil at the Broadview Detention Center located just west of Chicago, in Broadview, Illinois. Led by Sr. Joann Persch & Sr. Pat Murphy, the Sisters of Mercy have been doing this every Friday morning for the past 3 years. There were Roman Catholics – sisters, brothers, deacons, priests, diocesan staff, lay people – Jewish friends – a rabbi and a lay person, a Mennonite lay person, and members of the United Church of Christ, both clergy and lay, along with family members of immigrants being deported that day. There have been Hindu and Islamic clergy and lay persons who have participated.

The weekly vigils are simple and profound. The focus is around praying the rosary. Which may not sound very ecumenical or interfaith, but there’s power and truth in the fact that the vast majority of detainees themselves find this prayer to be a deep comfort. In that sense it is an act of solidarity for us to join them in their prayers even as we offer other prayers for the detainees, their families and for all who are working on behalf of compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) estimates 322,000 people passed through its custody in FY 2007, and 277,000 were deported. The numbers continue to grow. At any given time there are about 33,000 immigrants detained in various detention facilities throughout the US, held in a wide variety of facilities ranging from county jails, state and federal prisons and for-profit privately owned immigrant detention centers. County, state and federal prisons receive federal funds for housing immigration detainees. It’s big business.

The Broadview Detention Center is operated by the Chicago ICE office, which oversees all detainees in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas and Kentucky. All immigrants detained in any of these states are brought to Broadview for final processing and deportation. According to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant Rights, there are consistently about 1,000 people in custody under the supervision of the Chicago ICE office at all times; and 11,000 people have been deported through Broadview in the past year. Deportations take place from this location on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

On June 12th, approximately 70 people were deported from the Broadview Detention Center. As our prayer vigil drew to a close, the razor-wired gate slid open and a converted school bus and two large vans, each filled with immigrants pulled out onto the street. Religious leaders were invited to step onto the busses to offer prayers and words of encouragement to the immigrants. There is a surreal quality to all of this. For the past year, the Sisters of Mercy have been leading an effort to convince ICE and the State of Illinois to allow pastoral care for the detainees. It’s been just five weeks since ICE has allowed a pastoral presence on the busses. This can hardly be called pastoral care, but at least it’s something. We were on each of the busses for just a couple of minutes – enough time to greet the people, pray the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary (which ends “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death”) and offer some words of solidarity and encouragement. Then they were off to O’Hare International Airport and Juarez, Mexico.

Here’s the surreal part. The busses were filled mainly with young men – some no more than teens – a few elders and a handful of women. Most are people who, until they were arrested and detained for immigration violations, had been working and caring for their families, maybe going to school. Now they were being treated like dangerous criminals. They were being transported on busses that had literally been turned into cages – bars on the windows and across the doors, bars and thick Plexiglas dividing the detainees from the driver and guards – as if they posed a serious security threat. Each person was handcuffed at the wrist and shackled at the ankles, and all were tied to one another at the waist. I had heard that this is how the people in detention were routinely treated. Still, I was not prepared for seeing with my own eyes. Nor for the gratitude reflected in theirs for our presence, prayers and solidarity, offered through bars and bullet-proof plastic.

We should be clear here. An immigration violation is a civil offense. Yet people are being treated as if they are dangerous criminals. It's street theater par excellence, directed and produced by ICE. The whole thing is meant to instill shame in the detainees and casts them as criminals before the guards and the US public. Our silence makes us complicit and casts us in roles that support a broken immigration system and betray our immigrant brothers and sisters. It’s shameful street theater, meant to get under our skin. Shaken, I was grateful the words of Dave Martin’s song were still ringing in my heart and mind: There are no illegal people, we are sisters, sons and wives. There are no illegal people, all are precious in God’s sight.

Come and join us at one of the Friday morning vigils. Come in prayer to be present and to be a presence. I’ll be there on the 2nd Friday of each month and members of Wellington Ave. UCC are always there on the 1st Friday. And the Sisters and many other friends are there every week. You’ll be welcomed whenever you go.

For more information, contact
Rev. Denise Griebler,
Pastor of St. Michael’s United Church of Christ
630/231-0687 (church office)
630/297-1740 (cell)

Directions to the Broadview Detention Center:
The weekly Friday vigil begins at 7:15 am and lasts about 45 minutes. Religious leaders are invited to remain and offer greeting and prayers on the busses as they depart, as co-ordinated by the Sisters of Mercy.

The Broadview Center is is located at 1930 Beach St, Broadview, IL 60153.

From Chicago drive I-290 W to South 25th Ave exit, 18A, turn right at Lexington St., Turn Left on Beach Street.

From the West, I-290 East. Exit South 25th Ave. Turn Left at the ramp stop sign onto the frontage road. The frontage road bends right and becomes Beach Street.

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