Keeping the Faith: Local Group Stands Up for Detained Immigrants

Amy L. Dalton Feb 23, 2008

By Amy L. Dalton

For the tenth year in a row, penitents of a different sort gathered in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to mark the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. The Interfaith Refugee Action Team–Elizabeth (“IRATE” for short) held its regular ash Wednesday vigil on Feb. 6 outside of the Elizabeth Detention center, a privately run prison that confines refugees while their cases are pending.

More than 150 participants from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey Gathered at the prison for prayers and song, and received the traditional marking of ash on their foreheads. Spanning the 40 days before Easter, the season is traditionally a time of individual contrition and fasting. But IRATE sees the need for collective confession. “We are trying to do penance on behalf of our whole country,” said attendee Gregory Sullivan. “Because when we condone this, we are guilty.”

The Elizabeth Detention center and its owner, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are part of a growing trend of incarceration being used as a solution to the “immigration problem.” While being held, detainees are caught in a legal limbo, and are not protected by any government’s civil liberties. They are kept in detention for the entire time their cases are being processed, which can be a matter of months or years. During that time they have no right to a lawyer and can access health care only in the case of imminent death.

The use of such institutions is growing rapidly as anti-immigrant measures are pursued across the country. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” said Geri Mulligan, one half of a husband-wife duo that leads the effort. “In 1998 there were between six and seven thousand immigrants being kept in detention on any given day; today there are 27,000.” “People ask me, does that make you feel discouraged? But no, it just makes me irate!” she said.

The group took on its name in 1999, a year into their vigil. “We were always angry at our meetings,” Mulligan remembers. “So we picked the name IRATE and found words that fit the acronym.”

IRATE works closely with the First Friends prison visitation program, which was founded after the Jesuit refugee Ser- vice pulled funding for a similar effort. The Ash Wednesday gathering drew volunteers who had been visiting prisoners for the better part of the decade. a similar program in New York city called “Sojourners” is run out of riverside church. but visiting is not the half of it. This community of faith-based activists shoulders almost all of the labor that the government and CCA declines to provide for the detainees. a coalition of four faith-based service organizations organizes volunteers to conduct interviews with each new detainee. They produce legal summaries, and post them to online bulletin boards that pro-bono lawyers can check.


Four years ago, CCA and Immigration and customs enforcement (Ice) stopped meeting with community groups about these issues, said Charlie Mulligan. Since then the private prison industry has boomed as random raids on existing immigrant communities has skyrocketed. Like the refugee populations, these individuals are held in detention without any due process and suffer from neglect during their stay. according to Juan Carlos Ruiz of the New York New Sanctuary Movement, such actions by Ice are increasingly targeting public spaces, especially in upstate New York near the border.

“There are people who have come 30 or 20 years ago, who have rooted themselves on this side [of the border], being rounded up and put in these detention centers,” Ruiz said. “a great deal of them have kids who were born and raised in the U.S.”

The New Sanctuary Movement is a faith-based effort to address the immigrant detention crisis. along with IRATE and dozens of churches and grassroots organizations, they are seeking to ratchet up the resistance to this new arm of the prison–industrial complex. a newly formed regional coalition, the Interfaith coalition for the right of Immigration Detainees and their Families, has recently been convened by the American Friends Service committee to focus these efforts. The group plans to monitor each of the detention centers in the region that imprison immigrants.

“We need to start talking to our neighbors,” said Ruiz. “Go home tonight and talk to two of your friends about what you did for Ash Wednesday! It’s time to ramp it up!” For more information, visit

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