For many, coming to America is a dream. People who flee their home countries to escape persecution, violence, and poverty hope to be greeted with the American Dream of citizenship and new beginnings. Many, however, are detained for entering the country illegally. For long stretches of time, they are held in windowless warehouses with no access to the outside world or legal aid. In many cases, they are not permitted to have possessions, including their own clothes.
Upon learning of this situation, Dominican Sister of Hope Patricia Jelly, OP was “taken aback.”
Sister Pat lives in New Jersey not far from the Elizabeth Contract Detention Center, which is one of six detention centers in the state. Three years ago, Sister Pat began meeting with former detainees to learn about detention. To her surprise, the people she met weren’t hardened criminals; they were simply families seeking a better life.
“The only crime these people have committed is that they have come into the country,” Sister Pat shares. “They come from war-torn areas. In some cases, they had bounties on their heads so that they had to escape.”
In one case, Sister met a young man whose father was murdered because he was part of the opposition party. In an attempt to avoid his own murder, the man left his family and found his way up from Central America. Upon reaching the United States, he was detained.
“Apparently, they’re in former warehouses with no time to even get outside,” Sister says. “The circumstances are horrible.”
Together with the Dominican Sisters of Hope congregation, Sister Pat began taking action toward immigration reform. The sisters sought to raise awareness of the issue: they worked with legislators and even adopted a corporate stance that vowed to devote energy and resources to the cause.
While they strove to make change on a systemic level, they also came across a simple way to make life within the warehouses more bearable.
Through a non-profit organization called First Friends, the sisters learned that detainees are not only robbed of freedom and possessions, but they are also unable to communicate with their families back home.
Detainees are allowed to send letters with pre-stamped envelopes, which they purchase from the detention center commissary for an inflated cost. However, because many detainees come here with little or no money, affording the postage is impossible.
In an effort to facilitate such communication, the Dominican Sisters of Hope now partner with First Friends to collect envelopes stamped with Forever or International postage stamps (size 10/business size), loose-leaf paper, notepads, greeting cards, pocket folders, and soft-cover books.
For Sister Mary Feigen, who serves as the Justice Promoter for the congregation, this effort is all about hope.
“We’re trying to bring the fullness of humanity to people who are in really dire situations,” Sister Mary says. “That’s what hope is all about.”
“These people are held in centers and don’t have a lot of freedoms; sometimes they are detained for years. Our aim is to [better] the lives of people.”
Last year, Sister Mary visited the First Friends office to help aggregate the donations and distribute them to the detainees. While she says she’s looking forward to participating in this “really great project” again this year, she’s hoping that the effort goes far beyond the Dominican Sisters of Hope. Ideally, she’d like the word to spread to local communities so that many can donate and volunteer in coming weeks.
“We’re helping people,” Sister Mary says. “Whatever we’re collecting, we know where it’s going. It’s touching the lives of all the people in detention centers.”
Sister Pat agrees that she’d like to see the word of the drive reach churches, religious communities, parishes, and housing complexes.
After all, according to Sister Pat, the collection and distribution of these materials is simple but powerful. It’s as normal and as important as contacting a loved one to exchange a holiday greeting.
“Don’t all of us want to do that?” Sister Pat asks compassionately, stressing that many of these people have had to leave their families behind in order to have not only a better life, but life itself.
“It’s normal for them to want to write to their families,” she continues. “We all want to be connected with those who we love.”