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Outreach program educates students about asylum, immigration
February 23, 2011

Outreach program educates students about asylum, immigration
As Jesuit Refugee Service/USA continues our outreach efforts and establishes more JRS Action Networks across the U.S., more people will be empowered to not only start asking questions, but demanding answers from those in power to change the system.
JRS/USA strives to bring people face-to-face with the realities of refugee life, and while the role-playing exercise was fictitious, it was rooted in findings on U.S. Federal Immigration Detention Centers’ conditions and asylum seekers’ personal accounts. Many students for the first time discovered that our approach to the asylum process in the United States leaves innocent people feeling "afraid!" or "wanting to go back home!" to the place they had risked everything to escape.

By Kim Miller
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Outreach Coordinator

(Washington, D.C.) Feb 23, 2011 — "Wait! I don’t get it!" the young woman towards the back of the classroom exclaimed. "Why don’t people like immigrants? Why are people being treated like this? It’s not fair!"

I had just finished explaining to the class of juniors at Cristo Rey High School in New York City how asylum seekers are treated when they come to the U.S. in search of refuge, but lack the papers to enter properly. In many classes like this young woman's, I have led students through the following exercise:

"Imagine you’re a young man or woman living in a place such as Colombia, where war, persecution, and uncertainty have been central to your life since the time you were born. People have told you there are safe havens out there in places like America, so one day, after scrounging together every last dollar you have and narrowly escaping the armed militias who are searching for you, you make your way onto an airplane headed for safety.

"Now imagine yourself getting off that plane and setting foot onto the terminal at Newark International, believing that for the first time in your life, you are safe."

At this point, I ask the students how they feel, and I receive a barrage of responses from "happy!" to "still nervous" to "relieved."

"A few minutes go by," I continue, "and you realize that you should let someone know that you’re a refugee and you’re here to seek asylum, so you head over to the Customs Enforcement officer and say exactly that. And what do you think happens next?" The class seems perplexed as to where I’m going with this exercise. "You’re put in handcuffs and taken off to the detention center. Imagine how you’re feeling then, a month down the line, still locked up in what looks and feels like a prison without access to your family or friends, being fed meager rations of questionable food, and still lacking a real explanation of why this is happening to you. You've been complaining to the guards of the pain in your stomach, but no doctors have actually addressed your concerns. How do you feel now?"

The mood in the room has changed. Many students shake their heads, while others chime in that they are "angry!" or "afraid!" or "wanting to go back home!"  And then there was the young woman in back corner who simply wondered, "Why don’t people like immigrants? Why are people being treated like this? It’s not fair!"

Later I explained to the young woman and the rest of her class that even if a person meets all of the requirements for refugee status, he or she still must enter into an application process. Under current U.S. policy, these applicants, also called “asylum seekers,” spend their time in limbo within the confines of approximately 300 US Federal Immigration Detention Centers which often look and feel like prison.  Asylum seekers may also be housed with prisoners in U.S. Detention Centers even though they have committed no crimes. In a heated political environment that is quick to denounce immigration of all kinds, it is essential to remember that asylum seekers have committed no crimes and are merely exercising their international right to flee from persecution and seek protection in a new country.  The U.S. has upheld this right for the past 60 years as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

While I shared the young woman’s frustrations, I also found great hope in her response. JRS/USA strives to bring people face-to-face with the realities of refugee life, and while the role-playing exercise was fictitious, it was rooted in findings on U.S. Federal Immigration Detention Centers’ conditions and asylum seekers’ personal accounts. Many students for the first time discovered that our approach to the asylum process in the United States leaves innocent people feeling "afraid!" or "wanting to go back home!" to the place they had risked everything to escape.

In the midst of confronting these troubling truths, students were willing to ask the dangerous question, "Why?" As JRS/USA continues our outreach efforts and establishes more JRS Action Networks across the U.S., more people will be empowered to not only start asking questions, but demanding answers from those in power to change the system. 

You can join in the movement by exploring the "stay informed" portion of our website at www.jrsusa.org/signup to find concrete ways to take action on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide. To learn more about the asylum process and our Detention Chaplaincy Program in Federal Immigration Centers click here.

"Why are people being treated like this?" she asked. My hope for a more just future lies with those willing to take the first step towards change by asking this question.



Press Contact Information
Mr Christian Fuchs
communications@jrsusa.org
202-462-0400 ext. 5946