I wrote here about six weeks ago about the frustration and heartbreak of watching a family in my neighborhood suffer after the father of the household was stopped for a questionable traffic violation and then was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on suspicion that he lacked legal status. He was detained for a week in a county jail, which rents space (in exchange for a substantial economic benefit to the county government) to ICE. Then, because apparently there was more bed space available elsewhere, my friend was flown from Illinois to Colorado, where he spent three more weeks in a detention cell operated by a private corporation, at the taxpayer’s expense.
(Side note: If you are an American taxpayer, you may want to do the math on that one: the federal government spends an average of $122 per night per immigrant that it detains. At that rate, for five weeks of detention—when this man would otherwise have continued to work two jobs, paying taxes and supporting his six kids so that they do not have to rely on public benefits— the federal government probably spent about $4,445 on detention, not including the cost of air transportation between Illinois and Colorado; they will likely now spend much more to put him through a series of immigration court hearings with the ultimate goal of deporting him, which will imply the further costs of transporting him to Mexico—at an ultimate total cost to the taxpayers of between $12,500 and $23,148. Why, when our federal government is facing a fiscal crisis, would we do all this? Perhaps at least in part because the private corporation that operates the facility where my friend was detained in Colorado spent $660,000 on professional lobbyists to advance their business interests in 2010 and, between 2009 and 2010, made $526,833 in political contributions to elected officials of both political parties. From a purely economic perspective, these would seem to be good investments, as the company recently reported record profits, with annual revenue of more than $1.6 billion).
After five weeks of detention, this father was informed that he could be released—if his family came up with a $5,000 bond. Relying on a large extended family network, this family—a stay-at-home mother with six kids, relying on help from the church to pay rent since their father was detained—gathered the necessary money. But you must be a US citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident to post a bond, so I volunteered for that task.
After several dozen phone calls—most of which ended at answering machines, with no possibility of talking to a real person—I determined that it was possible for me to pay this bond with the ICE office in Chicago, even though the father of this family was now held in Denver. I showed up at about 2:30 PM. After waiting in a line—the room was filled with immigrants from all over the world, most with somber looks on their face—I was told to fill out a form and sit down. After waiting about 90 minutes, I was called to the window and informed that they would not be able to help me today and that I should come back tomorrow at 8:00 AM.
Frustrated, I traveled back to my home in the suburbs, then awoke at dawn the next morning to travel into Chicago to be at the ICE office right at 8:00 AM. After waiting in another line—several of the sad-faced individuals in the crowded waiting room had also been there with me the day before—I was told that there was no reason to have come so early, since the ICE facility in Denver was in a different time zone and still closed. So I waited, glad that I had this time taken my laptop with me to get work done.
As I sat there—hour after hour—I was flabbergasted by the way that the receptionist treated the various people who arrived at the front of the line. Her standard greeting was a stern “why are you here?” (not, “good morning, how can I help you?”) and she would berate people for not knowing what and where their “A Number” was. She also did not speak Spanish; I ended up spending part of the day translating for Spanish-speaking immigrants whom she began to yell at after they did not understand her instructions.
At about 2:00 PM, an officer—who, to his credit, was entirely professional and courteous—called me back, took my cashier’s check, showed me a few forms to sign, and informed me that my friend would be released in Colorado. I left the ICE office at 2:23 PM and headed for my train and back to my office.
Though it took about four hours—and several phone calls—beyond the six hours that I had waited to sign the bond, my friend was eventually released. He made it back to his family after a 22 hour bus ride (at his own expense). They’re grateful to be reunited, and now scrambling to pull together money to hire an attorney (whose first task will be to motion that his court location be moved from Denver, where—for no logical reason—they have assigned his first court date, to Chicago).
It has been a frustrating experience for me, and my friend’s challenges are likely not over. Still, there was a silver lining in this experience: while I am embarrassed by my government’s policies that divide in-tact families, the inefficiency and waste of our bureaucracy, and the dehumanizing treatment of people made in God’s image, I was proud to see the church respond much differently. My friend’s church has surrounded the family, helping them financially, offering transportation, and bathing them in prayer. As I returned to my apartment, frustrated after being sent away from the ICE office the first evening, I was able to pray for my detained friend and his family—and for the ICE employees I had interacted with—along with Christian brothers and sisters from Iran, China, Kenya, Togo, and folks, like me, whose families have been in the U.S. for a long time. The next day, when my friend was finally released, I called on a pastor I know in Denver and asked if he would please pick up my friend (a total stranger to him), provide him with a clean pair of clothes and some food, and then bring him to the bus station to begin the journey back to his family; he was eager to help. I’m so blessed to be part of God’s Church which, as we say at World Relief, is “the broadest, most diverse social network on the planet.”
Under the law, when my friend eventually goes to court, he is very likely to be found deportable. When I began writing this blog last Wednesday evening, I presumed that he would be deported. But a change in policy by the Obama Administration announced on Thursday—shifting the focus of deportations solely toward those with serious criminal records and using the discretion that the immigration laws grant to the Department of Homeland Security to decide not to deport some of those without criminal histories—could allow my friend to stay with his family and even to be granted work authorization. While it remains to be seen exactly how this new policy will be applied, it certainly seems like an enormous answer to prayer—for this family and for many others in similar situations. Thank the Lord (and it’s probably not a bad idea to thank President Obama for finally making this decision, for which advocates have been asking him for years now).
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist atWorld Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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