Human Rights Advocates Protest Detention Conditions

Renée Feltz Oct 14, 2010

Several faith-based groups and human rights advocates held their 12th annual vigil on Sunday to call for alternatives to immigrant detention. The event took place outside the 250-bed Elizabeth Detention Center, which is nestled among several warehouses in the shadow of Newark Airport.

They were joined by several musicians from Catholic Worker House who played a rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s, “This Land is Your Land,” and encouraged everyone to sing along to verses in English and Spanish.

“Our objective today is to see if we can get loud enough that they’ll hear us inside,” said Greg Sullivan, program director at IRATE & First Friends.

A recent report card issued by the Detention Watch Network evaluates progress on promises made a year ago by the Obama administration to overhaul the detention system. It found the government has been slow to move away from a punishment-based model that holds immigrants who have been convicted of civil offenses in prison-like facilities. Part of the challenge stems from the constant influx of new detainees from new partnerships between immigration officials and local police through programs like Secure Communities.

“We see some improvements, especially for the earlier release of asylum seekers,” said Sullivan, “but the fact remains that many more of our neighbors are being detained in county jails where facilities are even more onerous than they are here.”

Sullivan and members of his organization visit detainees at the detention center on a regular basis, along with immigrants held in the Bergen and Hudson County jails. He said the groups are in desperate need of more volunteers to visit immigrants.

Click on the slideshow below to hear the story of a Nigerian asylum seeker who was visited by a member of First Friends while he was detained in the Elizabeth Detention Center for eight months and two weeks.

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