From October through March, Roberta Elliott of South Orange visited with Ming*, the 22-year-old daughter of subsistence farmers from southern China, at the Elizabeth Detention Center.
About a month ago, Elliott arrived at the center to find that Ming was gone. She has no idea whether Ming was deported or moved to another detention facility.
According to Elliott, that’s par for the course at the center, where individuals are held, sometimes for months, while they wait for their immigration status to be determined or await deportation. For volunteers like Elliott, it’s also the reason they keep going back, hoping to bring a measure of compassion to a process some observers consider callous and often arbitrary and even frightening and demoralizing.
Opened by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and administered by the private Corrections Corporation of America, the facility near Newark Airport can house up to 300 individuals.
Elliott started visiting detainees there in September as a project related to her becoming an adult bat mitzva in November at Bnai Keshet in Montclair. Although she trained with Sojourners Detention Center Visitor Program, established in 1999 and affiliated with New York City’s Riverside Church, it didn’t take her long to start her own group, one that is Jewishly affiliated. It appears to be the first Jewish-affiliated detainee visitation program nationwide.
“The smile that lights up Ming’s face when she sees me each time tells me that these visits are God’s work — and the purest expression of my faith,” Elliott told an audience at Congregation Beth El in South Orange in March, before she discovered Ming’s absence.
“I have no objection to church groups, and I am grateful to Sojourners for having trained me; I just think as Jews we should be a light unto nations and we should set the example.”
Elliott said there is no specific Jewish component to her program.
“But it is the raison d’être: that we are to welcome strangers and visit the sick.” Visiting the detainees, she said, “is not so different from visiting the sick.”
She also said that Jews, as the quintessential strangers, “have a particular obligation to do this kind of work.”
Elliott had already recruited seven volunteers to join her, and her talk at Beth El yielded one more, who has not yet undergone training. (Training is done in partnership with First Friends, a detainee visitors’ group.) She will also speak at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange on April 25 and hopes to recruit more volunteers there (see sidebar).
In March, her group was embraced by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, where Elliott is vice president of media and communications. Founded to serve wave after wave of Jewish immigrants, HIAS has transformed its mission to wider advocacy for refugees and immigrants of all backgrounds. Elliott’s visitor program is serving as a pilot for HIAS, with the goal of making it nationwide.
There is no specific political advocacy component to the program, Elliott said. “We are there to provide people with friendship and companionship. Many of these folks either know no one in this country, or their families are not able to visit.
“Sometimes in the course of conversation, we of course discuss political situations in the detainee’s home country that led them to flee, if they are asylum-seekers.” But, she added, “we are not an advocacy group.”
“Roberta’s project offers a way of serving the compelling needs of asylum seekers and doing it through a Jewish lens,” said Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS. “HIAS is always looking for ways to take the core Jewish values of visiting the stranger and caring for the vulnerable and making them into programs that can be introduced nationwide. We want to see if we can work in a compelling way on this project.” Aranoff will join Elliott at the April 25 presentation.
HIAS is providing Elliott with some support and will make her effort part of the National Jewish Center for Refugee Immigrant and Integration Services that the organization is developing.
The HIAS website states that the organization “believes that the detention of individuals who pose no threat to society is a costly, inhumane, and unnecessary practice. Too often, detained immigrants and asylum seekers are jailed in harsh conditions thousands of miles from their families.
“Last year, U.S. taxpayers paid $1.2 billion to detain more than 260,000 immigrants, including families and children. Many are seeking asylum in the U.S. or were working to support their families before being caught up in raids.”
Elliott’s program has volunteers committing to visiting twice each month. Visiting time is limited to one hour, but the entire process can take as long as three hours with the addition of travel time and getting through security screenings, according to Elliott.
The visits themselves are not always easy.
“It’s hard work. It’s not an easy little chit-chat,” said Ellen Kolba of Montclair, who joined Elliott’s group after hearing her talk at Bnai Keshet. Kolba has been visiting detainees since January.
“There’s a Plexiglas shield that goes around the entire length of the room. You are cut off completely from the people you are visiting. The only way to communicate is by telephone,” she said. “You can’t hand the person anything; and you can’t hear anything except through the phone. You have to work hard to hear. Their English isn’t so good; they have an accent or maybe they don’t speak English at all. And you have to work to find things to talk about.”
‘Light unto the nations’
If visits are difficult for Kolba, getting involved was not.
“I knew about the detention center; I was more than vaguely aware that we were detaining immigrants without documents,” she said. “I’ve been thinking for a while about immigrant rights, and this is an immediate and direct way to have an effect. I like the idea of relieving the alienation these people must feel.”
She also identifies with the detainees. “I think a lot about the fact that my ancestors probably did not have appropriate documents by today’s standards,” said Kolba. “I don’t think they had anything. But they got in.”
Kolba, Elliott, and the other volunteers do not need professional training, beyond learning what to expect and some basic dos and don’ts, covered by First Friends. That’s because they don’t play an official, professional role in detainees’ lives.
“Our role is to be a compassionate listener and to provide friendship. Obviously, if we see something egregious, we will probably say something, but lawyers are in and out all day long and they are better able to assess the conditions of detention,” said Elliott.
In 2006, 550,000 people arriving by air, sea, or land were denied admission into the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, 440,000 people were detained in the United States in 2008. Many of the detainees held at the Elizabeth Detention Facility arrived at a nearby airport or seaport, but some have been transferred here from other parts of the country. There are six other detention facilities in New Jersey.
Ming was the second of three detainees Elliott has visited with so far. The first, 19-year-old Ahmed* from West Africa, was moved to another facility after just one visit. In early April, Elliott had her first visit with a Muslim detainee from Somalia.
When he found out that she is Jewish and works for a Jewish organization, Elliott said, “his eyes lit up, and he told me he had little contact with Jews before he came to the U.S. in December, but that all his contacts here have left him with very good feelings about Jewish people.”
His first intake lawyer was Jewish, as were two of his visitors, she said.
“This was exactly why I started a Jewish group,” said Elliott, “so that we can really be a light unto the nations. His appreciation of Jewish people made my heart sing.”
* Real names changed to protect individuals’ privacy.