Detention can best be characterized as an arduous and isolating existence, with individuals held in converted warehouses located miles away from family members or home towns. One entity has made it a priority to act as a lifeline, connecting detainees to the outside world. That entity is the Riverside Sojourners Immigration Detention Visitor Project.
Today, Riverside Sojourners Visitors Project marked its ten-year anniversary by hosting a forum titled U.S. Homeland Security's New Immigration Detention Reforms: What Difference Will They Make? Founded in 1999, the Sojourners Project recruits, trains, mentors and transports volunteers who then visit asylum seekers and other non-criminal non-citizens being held not only at Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, but at other detention centers in the New York area.
Elizabeth Detention Center is a converted warehouse which does not have outdoor access. Rather, there is an indoor courtyard with a roof. No contact visits are allowed. Visitors communicate through thick plexiglass and via telephones.
The aim of the visitors project is to help break the isolation and boost the morale of detainees who are often held for inordinate periods of time, pending a determination on their case. To that end, visitors are matched with detainees who do not have family members in the locale, to visit them for a sustained, one-on-one relationship.
The merit of the Sojourners Visitor Project was best borne out by testimony provided at the forum held today at Riverside Church:
Michael T: Spent three months in detention at the end of 1998 before his case was taken up by Human Rights First and attorney representation provided on a pro bono basis. Subsequent to his release, Michael was granted permanent residence status, and he now leads a productive life in White Plains, New York, where he earns a living doing building maintenance.
Rose: As a Sojourner visitor, Rose befriended a young woman from Nigeria whom she visited for about a year. Upon her release from detention, the young woman had nowhere to go. Rose consulted with her then fiance (now her husband) and her mother, before welcoming the young woman into her home. The young woman has since moved on with her life. She earned her Bachelor's degree, got married and bought a house in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and her son.
Chris: When Chris befriended a detainee from Guinea, he watched as the detainee deteriorated mentally and physically during the one year he was held in detention only to be deported to his native country.
As the discussion about detention reform gets underway, advocates are calling for a shift away from the prison type model to a non-penal model; for revisions to intake procedure with a closer examination of who should be detained and why; and for detention decisions to be reviewed by an immigration judge. (Detention decisions are currently under sole review by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), putting ICE in the unique position of judge and jailer).
One of the panelists at the Sojourners forum was Phyllis Coven, Acting Director for the Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODPP). Ms. Coven outlined the office's leadership commitment, vision for the future and the challenge to make it happen. Advocates are paying close attention to see what difference these new immigration detention reforms will make.