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USA: Finding clarity among detained migrants

Sr. Lynn Allvin, the Chaplain at the Florence Federal Detention Center speaks with Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Diocese of Tucson prior to a Mass the Bishop celebrated at the center last October. (DHS)
Sunday, January 25, 2015

(Washington, D.C.) January 25, 2015 — About 10 days ago I visited the Florence Federal Detention Center in Arizona where Jesuit Refugee Service/USA provides chaplaincy services to detainees who are held in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) facilities. Florence, Ariz., is about two hours from the U.S. border with Mexico. 

Having grown up in McAllen, Texas — a midsize city also on the border — in a predominantly Mexican-American immigrant community, I was not expecting to be incredibly moved by the visit. Deportations, the former INS (Immigration & Naturalization Services), DHS and la migra are all familiar terms in our community.

As we began our visit inside the DHS facility, I noticed two young men who stood on our left wiping down tables. Both were about 5 feet, 3 inches tall, with boyish faces and wearing blue uniforms. 

"It is either bring your child to work day or they must be teenage volunteers," I thought.

It wasn't until we reached a modest cafeteria made of white cinder blocks that my eyes began to tear up as I looked across the room of boyish faces. I was expecting to see the faces of older men who decided to take on the perilous journey to the U.S. in hopes of providing for their families, but instead I faced a group of young men who could not be much older than my 16-year-old brother.

Many of the detainees at the Florence Federal Detention Center are from the southern states of Mexico, or from Central America. They were gathered for a Mass coordinated by Sr. Lynn Allvin, OP, the JRS/USA Chaplain. They began clapping as our group walked into the cafeteria; they were happy to welcome us to celebrate Mass with them.

Our group stood behind three young men who formed a singing group. They were leaders at the Mass along with the men who read from scripture. As these men led the hymns or stood in front of the group to read they greeted their fellow brothers with a warm smile and an acknowledgment of how great it was to be among each other. "Hermanos — Brothers" they called out to the group. They looked proud, empowered and joyful in this leadership.

As Mass began I looked across at the smiling faces once again, and I was filled with admiration for the detainees. I thought back to the car ride from Tucson to Florence that morning and the trivial worries that had plagued my mind: the unanswered emails in my inbox, my over calorie consumption from all the carbs we had during meals, not working out or running in three days. Silly matters, really.

The detainees, despite all of their own worries, were happy in this moment. The majority will be deported in the following three to four weeks. Some will be deported to dangerous border towns in Mexico hundreds of miles away from their families and homes. Some will be deported and then assaulted by the drug cartels in these Mexican border towns. When detainees are deported DHS provides them with a set of clothes and shoes, making them obvious targets for drug cartels. Some of those who will be deported had just missed the deadline to be eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Working for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA I had always found it difficult to describe the chaplaincy services that we provide through our DHS contract. When friends would ask, "What do you mean you provide religious services at immigration detention centers? Just to Catholics or to everyone?" I would answer "To detainees of all faiths and religions," but without much further explanation.

But in that room, during that Mass and in that moment, the importance of our chaplaincy service programs became crystal clear. At the Florence Federal Detention Center Sr. Lynn has created a space where detainees, many who are still teenagers and facing painful hardships, find solace. She has created a dignified space where detainees of all religious backgrounds are treated as people and not alien numbers — as they are classified are referred to by DHS.

Mass ended with all of us singing a song from my memories of Sunday "Misa" in McAllen and more importantly a song that resonated perfectly with the moment we shared at the Florence Federal Detention Center: "Un día a la vez — One Day at a Time."

by Brenda Garcia 
Grants Development Coordinator
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA