A Call to Listen — Standing with Families in Detention

By Savannah Sullivan

Before you get defensive….before you use your voice to silence another’s….before you place blame for all kinds of issues on someone whose story you’ve yet to even hear…before you blow up about how personally disrespected you and your family and your country feel from “other” people being here…take some time to listen. Listening is different than hearing. You can hear about oppression and injustice without bothering to try to understand it. You can hear, and especially if you are in a place of privilege, you can ignore. But if you are truly listening and gaining understanding, it’s a lot harder to ignore. You know in your heart what is right. You know in your heart what is humane. You know in your heart the lengths that you personally would go to, to protect or provide for your own family….Please, set aside whatever feelings you may have about immigration for a moment and just LISTEN.

Listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters. Listen to why they came to the United States, seeking asylum, and the terrible conditions they have continued to live in here… September 6, 2016 was such a powerful night. I attended an inter-faith vigil at Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania, a detainment center for immigrant families, to show solidarity with “Madres de Berks” and their children, some of whom have been detained there for over a year. These individuals fled horrendous situations in their home countries with the hope of gaining asylum here in the United States, only to end up being re-victimized once they got here. As described through personal accounts of those detained, PRI World’s article “These Asylum-seekers Are Being Forced to Raise Their Kids in Immigration ‘Jails,'” gives a few examples of situations that these individuals have fled: severe physical abuse, sexual assault, and threats of kidnapping or even death. Now, after surviving the treacherous journey to the United States, these individuals must stay here in what is politely called a “residential center,” but more fittingly perhaps could just be called a prison, until they finish all of their court proceedings to try to prove that they have “credible fear” of returning to their home countries and should thus be granted asylum.

Based on a letter from Madres de Berks released in an article by the New York Times entitled “Mothers to Homeland Security: We Won’t Eat Until We Are Released,” the conditions that these families endure in the center have left some detained children saying things as intense as that they would rather die than live there. Incarcerated is no way for children to be living, and many have already been severely impacted emotionally and physically, some already showing signs of depression and regression. Many of them have family members or friends with whom they could live, yet they have been isolated and unable to begin to live a “normal” life as they are awaiting these court proceedings.

On the day of the vigil, one immigrant mother shouted in Spanish from behind a fence across the street from us, about how thankful she was for the support from those of us speaking up for her and the others who are being detained, about how they had felt so alone, but now they know that they aren’t. It seemed surreal to be witnessing such juxtaposition; all of these women and children seeking freedom and justice were being contained behind a fence, in an otherwise open land where I and most of the other people on the outside were simply born having freedom and justice, without having to suffer to get it. That night, we showed our solidarity, prayed, lit candles, sang songs, and shouted words of encouragement across the street to these families.

They sang too, hand in hand, continuing to praise God even in these circumstances, and with a sign in front of them that said “Queremos Justicia” (we want justice). Because of these reasons, it was a powerful night, but it can`t stop there. In the case of Berks County Residential Center, according to 69 News, the PA Department of Human Services already revoked the center`s license, but the families have continued to be detained there during the appeal process. We need to put pressure on local, state, and federal leaders to end family detention altogether.

This pressing issue is affecting not only the well-being of the individuals confined in Berks County Detention Center, but individuals confined all around the United States. They are seeking freedom while their cases are being reviewed, to be able to live outside of these walls. Their stories need to be heard and we need to continue praying and advocating for them. No fence (or wall) can hold back their faith, courage and strength. No fence can keep out the love that so many of us have shown and will continue to show them.

It’s not just their fight, it’s OUR fight, together.

Savannah Sullivan is a member of Zion Lutheran Church in York and Communities of Hope, a worshiping community in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. 


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