An important ‘first’ contact for the undocumented

An important ‘first’ contact for the undocumented

Victor Salama seeks Jewish aid for those released from detention

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Victor Salama, executive director of First Friends, seeks area synagogues to provide temporary emergency housing to just-released detainees. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Victor Salama, executive director of First Friends, seeks area synagogues to provide temporary emergency housing to just-released detainees. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Victor Salama has a simple ask for synagogues: Provide temporary emergency housing for just-released asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. The need is pressing as the number of immigrants being released in New Jersey has surged in recent weeks.

“They have nobody. They get released to no one,” said Salama, executive director of First Friends, the oldest detention visitation program in the U.S. For those arrested crossing a border, “This is their first contact with freedom in the United States.”

Salama assumed leadership of the organization in January and soon realized that synagogues could have the facilities and people power to aid the undocumented.

He’s been making the rounds in the Jewish community. In early June he met with a coalition of rabbis from four area Reform synagogues; he’s held orientation sessions for volunteers at a handful of synagogues; and on July 9 he took a group of 14 clergy members, including four rabbis from Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated congregations, to tour the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark and learn how Essex County manages its U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation there.

First Friends was founded by four Jesuit priests in 1999. With an annual budget of $390,000, it has just one mission: to be the first point of contact for asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants in detention.

A cadre of volunteers offer regular visits to four detention centers in northern New Jersey: Bergen County Jail, Essex County Correctional Facility, Hudson County Correctional Center, and the Elizabeth Detention Center. Over the past two years, Salama estimates the organization has had support from about 100 churches and Christian religious orders, but almost no synagogues.

When any of the 2,200 people currently held in those detention centers in northern New Jersey is released, it falls to Salama and his staff of four to pick them up and provide shelter, food, and other necessities until they can either be reunited with loved ones or connected to a large social service agency. That means finding a home or a hotel, often with little notice and in the middle of the night.

“It’s a scramble,” he said.

As a member of the Conservative Congregation Beth El in South Orange and with two children attending Golda Och Academy, he realized he is singularly positioned to bring synagogues into the network of First Friends. He points out that the organization offers a lighter load than the kind of work some synagogues have undertaken, such as settling Syrian refugees, providing ESL programming, and serving as a long-term sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Down the road, Salama said, he’d like to involve mosques and other faith-based institutions.

Last year, First Friends assisted 120 previously detained immigrants, from picking them up and providing housing to posting bonds, offering cash assistance, and bus tickets. Another 348 immigrants were visited in detention by 295 volunteers. About 50 volunteers helped with transportation, housing, office work, and other tasks.

First Friends was handling about 10 releases per month, Salama told NJJN in early June during an interview at the Village Coffee in Maplewood. But in the two weeks prior to July 4, First Friends helped 18 post-release immigrants, and Salama was expecting at least five more within days.

“We are seeing a massive increase in releases from jails,” he said. “There’s been a massive shift in strategy and operations by the [Trump] Administration.” To ease the burden in the southern U.S., detainees are being transferred to northern detention centers, such as those in New Jersey, and they’re often released on bond because there’s no place to hold them, according to Salama.

Most of the releases are immigrants who recently arrived from the southern border, according to Salama. “They were detained in Texas jails for seven to 10 days and then shipped to New Jersey where they stayed two to three months until a judge released them on bond or parole,” he said.

Salama said the deplorable conditions that have been reported at the U.S. border with Mexico are not what detainees are reporting in New Jersey. Still, he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

“We are opposed to immigrant detention,” he said. “We’d like to see the process change to become more humane, with technology used to track immigrants waiting for status.”

On July 9, Salama, at right, took a group of 14 clergy members to the Essex County Correctional Facility. Participating rabbis included Faith Joy Dantowitz, Jesse Olitzky, Mark Cooper, and Ethan Prosnit (not pictured). Photo courtesy Victor Salama

He’s hearing complaints from immigrants from Texas including “… massive overcrowding in pens, with 90 people in a holding cell designed to hold half of that, with one toilet for all, sleeping on the floor or on each other because there’s no place to lay down, food that consists of three small sandwiches per day, being awakened every 30 minutes to be forced to move around, and no blankets,” he said.

But they are not reporting similar conditions in New Jersey. “Most detainees report that the New Jersey jails are run well.”

Salama tries to develop good relationships with the facilities’ administration so that he can address any problems that might arise regarding access to food or medicine or other complaints about the living conditions. He’s also working on expanding visitation hours.

His vision for First Friends is to provide as much support as possible so detainees can learn English, marketable skills, and financial literacy to enable them to more easily integrate if they are released; and if they get deported, at least they walk away with a skill set.

First Friends may seem an odd match for Salama, who has a law degree and a master’s degree in international service from American University. But the way he connects the dots of his peripatetic upbringing and family history, it makes sense that this former entrepreneur is now invested in immigrant detention.

Although he was born in the U.S., his parents moved around a lot, he told NJJN. He moved with them from Argentina to Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz north of Hadera for five years, from 1970-1975.

“When we moved to Israel, and I was a little kid, I remember how quickly my parents had the opportunity to integrate,” he said. “They had a job … and it felt like there was a process in place. And I feel like that was a lesson that I’ve always internalized. My parents didn’t feel like they were outliers or outsiders even though they came from Argentina and they didn’t know the language.”

Cultural integration and figuring out how to create platforms to successfully launch new emigres has long caught his attention. “I’ve always been fascinated with immigration,” he said. 

In addition to his personal history, he has a background in creating and growing new businesses, and he views First Friends as a chance to grow a small organization. The fact that immigration is a “political hot potato” now, as he put it, only makes the opportunity more appealing to him.

Of course, he’s sympathetic to the plight of the refugees he meets. Many are fleeing violent situations in Central America and countries in Western and Central-Eastern Africa, and he acknowledges that many are also seeking a better life, like the undocumented immigrants living in New Jersey swept up in ICE raids.

The visits First Friends provides are a lifeline to detainees, Salama will tell you, but finding a safe place for a person just released to stay for only a few days has proved the most difficult task.

“We just need volunteers to open a home, apartment, or congregation for a night or two, to feed them, provide a shower, keep them safe and warm,” until First Friends can connect them with a social service agency or put them on a bus to meet loved ones.

While he understands that immigration is a fraught subject that raises different viewpoints, even from a progressive perspective, he considers First Friends’ work as humane, not controversial.

“It requires volunteers to take a chance on someone that they don’t know.”

FIRST FRIENDS is a co-sponsor of “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention,” to be held Friday, July 12, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark. “Lights for Liberty” events are happening around the country and in various locations throughout New Jersey.

Attendees are encouraged to bring a candle and a poster or sign in support of ending the detention of refugees and undocumented immigrants. Other sponsors include SOMA Action, North NJ Democratic Socialists of America, and AFSC Immigrant Rights Program.

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