Author’s note: There are hundreds—thousands—of immigrant fathers who will not be with their children to celebrate this Father’s Day. These dads are detained, deported, and separated from the families who love and need them. We shouldn’t forget these dads; their kids haven’t.
It’s a bitterly cold morning in early March. The sky above is the color of ice and steel, the ground below of slush and mud. At the Monroe County Jail —a dormitory annex located in a rural area some 40 miles south of Detroit, Michigan—a group of people are waiting in the visitor’s room.
They are part of the Interfaith Detainee Visitation program—ministers, Catholic nuns, lay people, and Justice for Our Neighbors Southeastern Michigan (JFON SEMI) volunteers. They have been coming to this facility twice a month for the last two years. They are here to offer comfort, support, conversation, and prayer. They are here to show these imprisoned men that they have not been forgotten.
The inmates they are waiting to meet aren’t criminals—they are undocumented immigrants. They are men who came from other lands to make new lives for themselves and their families here in the United States. Now they are separated from their families, living in a county jail and facing deportation back to the countries they fled.
The volunteers—there are seven of them today—exchange warm greetings with the desk sergeants as they sign in. Everyone is a familiar face. These visitors have built a good relationship with the people who work at the jail.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.
The detainees sleep in a huge dormitory with bunk beds, open showers and open toilets. There is a common room, where inmates can watch television or play cards. Some of them lay on their narrow beds, listless, bored, unnaturally still for men who are in the prime of their lives.
The volunteers are ushered into a conference room. They did not come empty-handed; several of the women are carrying homemade cookies. The one male visitor is carrying cartons of coffee.
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.
“Yes, I’m the guy who brings the coffee,” he says, grinning. Joel Walther, a pastor of the United Methodist Church, has been with the program almost since its inception. He came, he says, “following biblical instruction” as a way to live out the Gospel.
They weren’t always allowed to bring coffee, Pastor Joel explains. They weren’t allowed to bring anything. First they had to earn the trust and respect of the officials and guards. That took time. They started with Bibles and prayer books. Eventually, they were allowed to bring in baked goods, sweet treats, soda, and, perhaps most importantly, coffee. The detainees are normally only given water and powdered milk, and they sorely miss caffeine.
I was a stranger and you invited me in.
“We try to create a very comfortable and open environment,” says Tori Booker, Site Director of JFON SEMI. “I feel we have a very special team of volunteers who are committed to being present for these men. We pray, we talk, we listen, and sometimes we laugh.”
The detainees sign up to participate, and as many as 49 of them have signed up for one visit. Some of them are reconciled to their upcoming deportation; others are equally determined to return, somehow, someday, to the United States. Some are still hopeful, and some are still fighting. All are waiting.
I needed clothes and you clothed me.
Danil is a young refugee from Crimea. His asylum case is slowly making its way through the system. He has been in this detention center for nine months. Nine months. He doesn’t know how his family is doing back home. He doesn’t know if home still exists. He only knows that if he gets sent back he will be killed.
Although there are detainees from the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, the majority of them are native to Mexico or Central America.
Oscar originally came from El Salvador. The father of two U.S. citizen children, he worked as a construction worker until the night ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers came to his home. They were looking for somebody else. They didn’t find him, but they did find Oscar.
“El Salvador is not my home. America is my home,” he says, furiously wiping tears from his eyes. “My kids ask, ‘Where is daddy? When is daddy coming home?’ I tell my wife to tell them I am away working. How can I tell them the truth?”
Oscar is openly weeping now, and it’s raw and painful to see this proud man break down. It’s hard to know where to look or what to do or say.
“I’m not a criminal,” Oscar cries. “I am not a criminal! I don’t drink or smoke. All I do is work and support my family. I would do anything to support my family! Who will help them now?”
I was sick and you looked after me.
“We can reach out at moments of pain like this and comfort the men with a touch or hold their hand and pray,” says Pastor Joel. These simple, yet profoundly human, acts are not available to others who visit the detainees. They have to see their loved ones through panes of glass.
Wives and families can visit the detainees, but not all of the men are from the Detroit area—some are transported here from towns that are several hours away. Visits can be difficult to manage. Many of the wives are also lacking papers. Although officials here have taken pains to assure the inmates that their visiting wives and families will not be detained, many are still too afraid to take the chance.
There are no attorneys among the volunteers and no one offers legal advice. “We will give them the JFON appointment number, so they can ask a family member to call us,” says Tori. “The inmates cannot make outgoing calls without a phone card, and they are expensive.”
How expensive? A $20 phone card will get an inmate only four minutes on the phone. Five dollars a minute makes for limited conversations.
I was in prison and you came to visit me.
It’s the end of the visit. The volunteers pack up and prepare to head home–until the next time. Every one of them is planning to return. Yes, it is a challenge. Yes, it is difficult to witness so much anguish and frustration. But they will deal with it. They will be back.
“Part of the way you cope is to remain faithful,” says Pastor Joel. “Part of the way I deal with it is to continue to go there and be there and be consistent with these men, so they know they are not alone.”
He’ll still be the guy with the coffee.
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
Names of the detainees have been changed to protect their privacy.