Jacinta Fernandes OSB, a member of Emmanuel Monastery in Lutherville, MD, is the director of St Joseph Social Service Center in Elizabeth, NJ. In addition to its mission to the poor and homeless of the area, St Joseph’s also connects with First Friends, an organization that works with immigrant detainees in jails and detention centers. St Joseph’s is one of the sponsoring agencies at First Friends’ annual Ash Wednesday prayer vigil outside of the Elizabeth Detention Center, which houses 300 immigrants. These are people who came to America to escape violence and death threats in their own countries. Their only “crime” is they do not have proper documentation. They come expecting to find safety and a warm welcome in the “land of the free” that is home to so many immigrants. Imagine their shock when they are arrested and incarcerated in an old warehouse, without windows, and treated as criminals. They are given prison uniforms and if they are fortunate enough to get visitors, they must converse by phone behind plexiglass. First Friends recruits visitors from local churches and organizations for those who have no family here. Some wait as long as 2 or 3 years for their asylum hearings.
This year’s Ash Wednesday vigil was an interfaith service with prayers and readings from Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. It was a call to people of faith to dedicate themselves to acts of mercy, compassion and solidarity with all those forced to leave their homelands. Music was provided by the New York Catholic Worker band. Ashes were distributed to those who wanted them. A link is added to a chain each year symbolizing the number of Ash Wednesdays that we have gathered to protest the detention of asylum seekers. This was the 20th year so the chain now consists of 20 links.
Following the prayer service, everyone was invited to St Joseph’s for a soup supper and teach-in, at which a former detainee described his demoralizing experience in the Detention Center. All present pledged to continue working for an end to the Elizabeth Detention Center and all the detention centers throughout the United States.