It breaks John Vanier’s heart to read the letters he receives from his students, asking when English classes will start again. “I miss you and our classes,” writes one. “I pray for you. Please continue to pray for us here.” The writer of the letter is a 21-year-old woman from Cameroon, and “here,” for her, is the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she has been held since last summer.
For nearly a year, Vanier journeyed once a week from his job as a Spanish teacher at Brooklyn’s I.S. 383 to the Elizabeth center, where nearly 300 people are confined while waiting for their applications for political asylum to clear. He is one of 10 or so volunteers organized by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA to teach weekly English classes to Elizabeth’s anxious and bored detainees.
Then suddenly, this past November, the INS canceled the classes, along with a weekly Bible study. The INS cited reasons that would seem unreal–except that they were agency policy. First, in an English class, students wrote about their experiences as detainees. Then during a Bible study session, detainees talked about a scripture passage that mentions the word “prisoner.” The INS considers merely talking about the concept of imprisonment in a detention center a security risk, and it maintains that these seemingly innocuous incidents were dangerous–so dangerous that the meetings had to end.
The English and Bible classes were the first programs of their kind at the center–baby steps in the ongoing effort across the nation to provide social services to asylum-seekers in INS custody. That this groundbreaking program was blossoming in the Elizabeth facility–dubbed the “worst immigration detention center in the nation” by a New Jersey congressman after a 1995 riot shut it down–was particularly noteworthy. The program was actually doing so well that Jesuit Refugee Services was hoping to start a similar initiative at the INS detention center near Kennedy Airport.
But now the Queens program has been put on indefinite hold, and Vanier and other JRS volunteers have not been able to teach in Elizabeth since the INS’s decision. Will Coley, Jesuit Refugee Services project director for New Jersey, says the agency overreacted, quashing a promising and popular program because of a misunderstanding. He recalls that when the classes began, INS officials did ask his volunteers to refrain from initiating discussions about detention. Coley says while he and his volunteers respect INS conditions, the gag rule is tricky to uphold, since detainees are naturally inclined to talk about their experiences.
“We never set out to talk about detention, but when someone comes up to you and asks you questions, it’s hard to ignore them,” explains Coley. “Detainees are people. They have questions about their situations.”
The collapse of the program has been devastating to JRS, the detainees in Elizabeth, and to the volunteers–some of them former detainees themselves–who taught classes and continue to visit regularly. The men and women at this detention center have no known criminal records; most ended up there after arriving at Kennedy or Newark airports requesting asylum because of fear of persecution in their homelands, countries like Sri Lanka, China, Albania and Nigeria.
Volunteers say the classes were a much-needed break from the monotony of detention, where asylum-seekers spend days staring at a blaring television or sitting alone in windowless dorms, lost in thought, trying to comprehend how they ended up behind bars when all they were seeking was freedom. It’s a dim and confusing world, where “outdoor” recreation takes place in a big room with an open-air skylight.
The trouble all started with an innocent mistake, says Jesuit Refugee Services. A JRS volunteer asked her English students to write up evaluations of the English program, which were to be shared with participants at a conference of immigrants’ rights organizations. But the volunteer didn’t realize she was crossing the line when she invited her students to describe their experiences of detention as part of their evaluations.
Then at Bible study the next day, another volunteer was discussing that week’s scripture readings. In the selection, from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his followers to comfort those in prison: “For I was…a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” A day later, INS halted the JRS program.
The agency’s only public comment on the matter has been a brief statement released in December by INS Newark district director Andrea J. Quarantillo. “Jesuit Refugee Services broke the covenant that had been reached with INS,” it read. “The program of English classes, pastoral visits and Bible study was initiated to provide detainees with a positive outlet for their energies that would not deal with detention issues. It was understood by all parties that detention issues would not be topics for discussion.”
Quarantillo added that the INS “has no objection to Matthew 25 or any other Bible passage and does not seek to censor them. We only request that detention issues not be included in the lesson plans.”
To immigration advocates, the INS decision appears to be a disheartening step backward. In 1995, an escape attempt escalated into a riot over inhumane conditions at Elizabeth–an INS report later found that guards were humiliating and harassing detainees already agitated over long waits for hearings. During the uprising, asylum-seekers seized control of the center, which at the time was run by a private operator, Esmor Correction Services.
The disturbance led the INS to close the facility, and it prompted the agency to examine its use of private corrections companies. After kicking out Esmor, immigration officials reopened the Elizabeth center in 1997 under new management: Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator. The INS and CCA promised to transform Elizabeth into a national model.
By agreeing to JRS’ proposal to hold English classes and Bible study, the INS hoped to stave off asylum-seekers’ frequently reported feelings of helplessness and frustration. The idea was to give detainees something to do besides sleep, eat and wait. But since the center reopened, problems have resurfaced, including two hunger strikes and several suicide attempts by prisoners frustrated with their confinement.
Fleeing war-torn lands and life-threatening situations, many asylum-seekers arrive in the United States without documentation–and without papers, they must be detained, under the 1996 Immigration Reform Act. Proponents of those reform measures say the rule deters immigrants from making false claims in order to gain asylum. But immigration advocates say the law is unduly harsh, forcing asylum-seekers to live in prison settings for unspecified periods of time.
Since the law was passed, the INS has nearly doubled its total detention capacity. The agency does not keep statistics on how many asylum-seekers are currently in custody, but corrections and immigration experts believe immigration detainees are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population.
The INS eschews the term “prison” or “jail” to describe its detention facilities, but volunteers like Vanier who regularly visit the Elizabeth Detention Center say there is no other way to describe the setting. There are clanging doors and metal detectors; handcuffs and shackles; wardens and guards. On the rare occasion a detainee receives a visitor, the two are required to sit on opposite sides of a Plexiglas window and talk through a phone.
“It blew my mind the first time I visited,” says Janet Wise, a social worker and volunteer with the Riverside Church Sojourners Ministry, which works with JRS. “Here is a person who is nonviolent and she is treated like a hardcore, convicted criminal.”
Carol Fouke, Sojourners Ministry co-chair, says the painful reality of the detainees is hard to comprehend. “The folks on the inside are real heroes. They fled really brutal circumstances and are seeking a better life for themselves. They are really survivors. They are noncriminals who find themselves locked up and they don’t understand why.”
JRS’ Coley says he is hopeful that immigration officials will allow his organization to resume classes at the Elizabeth Detention Center, and he has submitted a proposal to do so. Agency spokeswoman Lynn Durko says the INS is “examining proposals” from various organizations interested in reinstating English and Bible study. Asked if the Jesuit group might be allowed to resume classes, Durko says only, “If they sent a proposal, they are being considered.”
So for now, Vanier has only his students’ letters, which relate how much they miss the intellectual and spiritual nourishment the classes provided. “It was so important to the students,” he says. “It was a rare chance for them to really socialize with one another.”
Lisa Tozzi is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.