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 in detention centers for either unlawful presence or unlawful entry. 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.

Sister Pat Jelly

The numbers are frightening. Since 2005, nearly three quarters of a million people, have been prosecuted in our federal courts for the crime of improper migration: 412,240 for improper entry and 317,916 for re-entry. Many of these detained persons are far from hardened criminals: they’re women, babies, toddlers, and most recently a high-school student from our neighborhood.

To make matters worse, a recent court ruling requires the release of the children but not the parents, which opens the door for families to be separated.              

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 had not committed any crime (unlawful presence is not a crime; it is a civil violation). 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.

Sister Mary Feigen

“Apparently, they’re in former warehouses with no time to even get outside,” Sister says. “The circumstances are horrible.”

Sister Pat, along with other members of the community, began taking action toward immigration reform. Six years ago, we Dominican Sisters of Hope created a corporate stance in which we committed to devote energy and resources to creating avenues toward legal immigration and citizenship without leaving the country. We are committed to educating ourselves and others on the issue. And we contact our representatives to encourage them to advocate for immigrants.

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.”