By Katie Beno Valencia (JustFaith coordinator, St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, Cumming, GA)
Patricia proudly showed me her beautiful pink cowboy boots. “They’re new.” She proceeded to tell me that she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up and that she’s in third grade and that her sister is 4 and that her brother is two and that they used to have a Chihuahua but that her mommy had to sell it. Oh, and that her daddy is from Mexico and he’s been in this place for a long time. Then her mommy’s name is called, and the family passes through the metal detector. They would sit behind the glass and talk through a telephone to their daddy for the next hour or so. Before leaving for their long drive back home, Patricia’s mommy waited while the guards inspected the bag she brought for her husband which held a few changes of clothes for his inevitable deportation to Mexico.
I met Patricia while waiting to visit Marco in the Stewart Detention Center. I knew nothing about Marco, other than his name, date of birth, and his Alien registration number. After the initial awkwardness as I attempted to explain why I was there, we spent a few moments sharing a bit of ourselves with each other. Marcos has three daughters, one of whom turned 10 years old on my birthday. My companion and I were the only people who had visited him during his 6 weeks at Stewart, and we will likely be the only visitors he will have. I thanked him for letting us visit with him, and at the end of our conversation, Marco called us “beautiful angels”. I smiled and couldn’t find the words to tell him that he was beautiful compassion to me.
Visiting the Stewart Detention Center is a very important and necessary experience of Christianity. In Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls us to visit him in prison, and not just visit him, but experience that raw moment of vulnerability and shared humanity. It’s not easy to enter the detention center, but it’s even harder to leave knowing that Marcos and Patricia’s daddy are staying behind and will likely never return to the lives they once had. Their lives in the U.S. are ending and they will be forcibly removed to a country they no longer know. Jesus calls us to feel and know the suffering of their loss, to understand the desperation that they feel, and to hear their frustration about the unknown.
After experiencing Jesus and His full compassion behind the glass of the visitors’ room, I too can never return to the life I once had. Jesus calls us to feel compassion, to feel solidarity and to feel pain. The moments I spent with Marco and Patricia call me to examine the entire system of immigration detention and to be critical of it. It’s not just one moment that we spend with a man who is detained, but it’s something we can take outside of that experience and fight for systemic change. It’s important to remember that the desire to fight for justice comes from meeting and spending time with someone, a brother or sister I had never met. The desire for justice comes from those few moments of solidarity and compassion: to feel their pain of being trapped and to feel their pain of being away from their families.
I also recognize the importance of sharing these moments of compassion in a broader context. We must remember the detainees’ families and how they are affected by the detention of their father, spouse, brother, son, cousin, nephew, and friend. We must also remember to take our experiences and work so that other families do not experience the violence of immigration detention. This violence is close to the worst form of violence, the forced displacement and separation of families: to take Patricia and her siblings’ daddy from them. We must meet and know the individual in the system of immigration detention and then turn that experience into a larger plan of seeking justice, to take it into our community and truly work for peace.
Meeting Patricia and Marcos and sharing just a few moments together is something that I now hold in my heart, in my prayers, and in my actions. From the moment I left the Stewart Detention Center, those moments have changed me.