For the last ten years, a dedicated group of ILJ-MI volunteers have visited with immigrant men held in the Monroe County Dormitory Facility. Slated to be deported, the men are detained there by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Faced with the realities and challenges of obtaining a legal pathway to remain in the country, most of the men are stressed and extremely anxious about their families.
The volunteers provide friendship along with emotional and spiritual support during their in-person visits twice a month. They don’t want the men to feel forgotten or that no one cares about their situation. The longevity of ILJ-MI’s Interfaith Detention Visitation Program is a testament to the volunteers’ steadfast dedication and to the relationship they’ve been able to sustain with jail staff.
Original volunteers Karen Donahue, RSM, Rev. Denise Griebler, Mary Davis, IHM.
The program began in early 2013 when Rev. Paul Perez of the United Methodist Church and Maria Klosowski of the Sisters of Mercy decided to extend ILJ-MI’s mission of welcoming hospitality to immigrants to include men in detention. After receiving the necessary permissions from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enter the dorm, they formed a group of interfaith volunteers to regularly visit the men.
The original scope of the program, which continues today, is to provide friendship and emotional and spiritual support during in-person visits twice a month. Not wanting the men to feel forgotten or that no one cares about their situation is the programs’ main intent, but other social and interfaith activities are also included during the visitations. During the visits, volunteers might sing, share and listen to concerns and hopes, and pray together. While the volunteers make it clear that they cannot give legal advice, they do make referrals to attorneys or relay messages to family members when requested.
The visitation team gathers for a meeting and training in 2017.
The faith-based focus of this program has continued to be one of its strongest components. While many of the men with whom the group visits are Christians, it has been a special honor to engage with men of other faiths and to try to meet their spiritual needs. Several years ago, in response to an influx of Muslim men in detention, one of our volunteers procured donated Qurans in English, Arabic, and several other languages from a local organization. Knowing that volunteers are only allowed to bring paperback books to the dorm, a volunteer from this organization lovingly replaced the hardback covers with special fabric.
The group also made connections with a local gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) and found a volunteer who provided support and friendship to the Sikh men in detention.
Donated Qurans in many languages.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program (and all external programs) was shut down for approximately two years. Instead of in-person visits, the volunteers delivered puzzle books and jigsaw puzzles. During the holidays, they added candy, chocolate, and holiday cards (for the men themselves and for them to send to loved ones) to the deliveries. These donations were provided by students, church members, and the ILJ-MI community.
Pandemic-era donations for the men in detention.
Since the visits have resumed in 2022, there has been a shift in the cases of the men in detention. Previously, the men may have been living in the U.S. for many years, even decades, with diverse types of legal status or immigration applications. They were being detained for certain violations or while awaiting a favorable court hearing or to be granted bond. Now, most of them have recently crossed the border and were sent to detention in Michigan. Many of them are hoping to find a sponsor or to apply for asylum, but the majority do not have attorneys and will likely be deported back to their home countries. They are stressed, concerned for their families, and frustrated by the bureaucracy of ICE. They tell us our visits and presence make a difference and bring them comfort, and we can only hope that is true.
In its ten-year history, the program has had many wonderful, caring volunteers, all committed to social justice and to advocacy for immigrants. Karen Donahue has been with the program from the very beginning and attends almost every visitation.
I have been part of the ILJ-MI Monroe visitation since we started in 2013. As a Catholic Sister of Mercy, my participation is an example of our long-standing Mercy commitment to act in solidarity with immigrants seeking fullness of life. While much of our work consists in legislative advocacy and public witness, visiting with the men detained at the Monroe dorm has put a human face on this issue and has motivated me to work harder to change the structures that deny their human dignity.
I have been deeply moved by the faith of the men. So many are in situations that, on the surface at least, seem to be hopeless. Yet they have hope and firmly believe that God is with them. I have also appreciated the ecumenical aspect of the ILJ-MI team. We are Methodists, Catholics, members of the United Church of Christ who share the Gospel imperative to welcome the stranger.
As an organization that assists immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers with their immigration needs, it is important to remember and support those who have been detained and face deportation. ILJ-MI is grateful for the moments of solidarity and for the friendships we have had with hundreds of men in detention at the Monroe County Dormitory Facility and for the ways their stories, agonies, and hopes inspire and inform our commitment to immigrant justice.
ILJ-MI staff member Tori Booker and current volunteers Marilyn Bahena, Karen Donahue, RSM, Rev. Denise Griebler, and Erik Wong