Sister Julia Walsh here, guest blogging this week.
Some of you have heard about my recent experience with the “deportation bus rides to Chicago’s O’Hare airport,” and some of you have not. For those who haven’t, here it is.
I recently had an intense experience that taught me a lot about the truth of the immigration situation in our country. Last Friday morning I had the opportunity to go along with a few Franciscan friar friends to pray at the immigration detention center here in Chicago before a group was brought to the O’Hare airport to be deported.
We got there by 6 a.m. so three people could board the bus and pray with the immigrants before they were shuttled to O’Hare airport. Three people are allowed on the bus every week. When we arrived in the dark and I stepped outside in front of the unmarked building with high barbed-wire fences and a garage, I was overwhelmed already. I realized that just being around the building was intense enough for me and I didn’t have the strength to board the bus as well. I let three other people have that opportunity. I actually babbled about not feeling comfortable praying in Spanish instead of admitting to feeling overwhelmed. The three were on the bus for five to ten minutes—praying in the dark garage before the bus departed.
I heard that there were about 80 people deported that morning.
While they were inside the bus praying I learned from some Catholic sisters- the shepherds of all this, it seems- that people are deported Tuesday and Friday mornings from this center.
Once people are arrested for their crimes—traffic violations for example—then they are brought to this place early every morning for processing before they go to a county jail. Within 12 days or so they come back to the deportation center to be deported on the bus.
It is the ultimate door for dismissal. We were at the regional center and there are about 12 or 15 throughout the country. These remarkable Catholic sisters have an outreach where they visit with those who have been arrested in the county jail during their short time there before they go. They find their families and inform them of their rights- if any- and give the immigrants a little money so they can buy necessities (the jail doesn’t give them any).
The sisters know where they’ll arrive when they’re deported: the Mexicans are flown to a Texas border town and then driven across the border and given about $10 and left there. They are left in the war zone of the drug cartel civil war that is happening in Mexico right now, and often times the deported quickly become involved in the mess because they are desperate for anything that will give them the basic human stuff!
There is a social services center there that I think is an outreach of the Catholic sisters on the other side of the border. The Chicago sisters give them the name of the place on the other side of the border so they can try to find it, but they can’t always find it. I wondered if they might forget its name because of the trauma of being deported.
I learned that the families try to say goodbye to their loved ones on the mornings they are deported, but they have to be at that center before 5 a.m. and they aren’t always allowed through- it depends on the mood of the officers. That morning a woman wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to her husband because she brought their baby with her and the baby didn’t have the proper papers.
By 6:30 a.m. my friends were back from praying and at about 6:45 a.m. we waved prayerfully and raised our hands in blessings at the bus while it drove away. The windows were completely covered so I wasn’t sure if they could see us, but I knew it still mattered. Soon after, people started coming and preparing for the prayer service. During that time three unmarked vans with dark windows drove up. I was told that inside were the people who had been arrested overnight and they came to be processed before going to jail for a few days. Again, we raised our hands in loving blessing. I learned that these powerful Catholic sisters are so effective in their work that one of them is on a first-name basis with the director of ICE and she calls him and reports trouble. I told her that it’s sisters like her that make me so happy I am part of the sisterhood.
The prayer vigil happens every Friday at 7:15 a.m. A crowd emerged, diverse people- the group is very ecumenical. There were young and old and every race. There were many nuns and priests. Immigration attorney Royal Berg gave an introduction speech and shared that they have been having this prayer service every Friday morning since January of 2006. The first time they did it there was such a huge snowstorm that the flights were canceled out of O’Hare and no one was deported that day, so they decided they better do it as often as they could.
He said that 1100 people are deported everyday and that more are deported now under the Obama administration, than a few years ago. He also said that the prayer service was featured in a documentary about immigration that is just being released now. I watched the trailer yesterday and it is about a Polish immigrant couple here in Chicago (film trailer below).
Then we prayed, powerfully. Someone hung prayer flags in a little tree and we gathered around a huge picture of the Guadalupe. We prayed the rosary in different languages. Before we prayed each decade we sang a verse of “We are Called.” We prayed the sorrowful mysteries and heard the names of those deported that morning. We prayed for the government and the officers and our lawmakers. We prayed for Gutierrez’s immigration reform bill and the conversion of our country. The decades of the rosary were prayed in layers of English, Spanish and Polish- and we all had prayer sheets if we didn’t know the language. Our rosary ended with a closing prayer and a blessing of the Holy Spirit upon us all and we then we parted hearing announcements about other ways we can continue the work.
As we left, I asked my friar friends what it was like inside of the bus. They told me that the three of them were crowded near the bus driver and they couldn’t really see the people. They could see that they were in cages and their wrists and ankles were chained so it was hard for them to do the sign of the cross when they prayed. They said that most of the people that they could see looked like they were in their 20s and some of them probably didn’t know English. They said it smelled really bad because the people couldn’t bathe or brush their teeth or anything while in jail (and even if they did have money to buy hygiene products the prices were tripled so they couldn’t afford them).
And they said they seemed so grateful to see a witness of love and that my friend Ed, OFM, got them all singing in Spanish. The friars pointed out how the path to citizenship can take many, many years. It may not ever go through, but a person can be deported in under two weeks. My friend Ed said told me that most of the immigrants he knows have been waiting for years to get their papers fixed … they really want to do that, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. I just remembered that a sister in my community sent me a great graphic recently showing how the naturalization process works. http://reason.org/files/a87d1550853898a9b306ef458f116079.pdf
It’s so hard for me to believe that people are treated this way, especially people who are so poor and simply trying to live and survive in the ways that they can. Few of the people committed any serious crimes but are simply trying to eat and work and provide for the people they love. I can imagine myself being desperate and wandering into another country if I was hungry and poor and wanted a job. I am disgusted that tax dollars (that the immigrants’ tax dollars!) are being used to violate my brothers and sisters’ dignity.
Certainly we must learn, spread the truth, pray, advocate, support immigrants and work really hard for just and comprehensive immigration reform. We must work with the Catholic Bishops and Gutierrez to help our government and nation be more loving and more fair.
Thanks for reading and being supportive of me and the things I try to do to help this world be a better place.
p.s. A little about the Gutierrez reform bill: http://www.gutierrez.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=456&Itemid=30