Human Rights Groups Say ICE Detainees Rarely, If Ever, Have Access to Clergy

In this June 17, 2018, photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who were taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP)

In May, Roberto Rauda, an undocumented immigrant, went to a New London, Conn., courthouse to pay a fine for carrying an open container of beer. Instead he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in a routine sweep and ended up in the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth, Mass.

Rauda, 37, who came to New York from El Salvador as a teen and several years ago found work in construction and at a lobster processing plant in Connecticut, was released in September, after members of the New London advocacy group Unidos Sin Fronteras paid his legal fees and $3,500 bail.

Sitting in his lawyer’s living room, Rauda grimly recalled conditions at the Massachusetts facility, such as cramped and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and inedible food.

Yet his face softened as he recounted how prayer helped him endure.

“We had a Catholic priest who came every two weeks, and we would get together in a room to pray and sing hymns,” Rauda told Religion News Service through a translator. “I was scared I wouldn’t get out, that my wife would be left alone, and I prayed to God that she would be all right,” he said.

For detainees like Rauda, comfort from clergy and faith in God are often the only glimmers of hope in a climate of deep despair.

But for many of the more than 39,000 undocumented immigrants locked up on any given day in ICE detention centers nationally — the highest number in history — visits from clergy, access to religious material, and opportunities to engage in religious worship can be infrequent, inconsistent and in some cases absent altogether.

At the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio, several detainees told their attorneys they rarely saw clergy. “The last time I saw a priest was when I was in El Salvador,” said one detainee incarcerated at NEOCC, which is operated by CoreCivic, one of the largest private corrections companies in the United States.

A 30-year-old Brazilian asylum-seeker who was transferred to NEOCC from San Antonio said that in Texas a pastor would visit on Sundays.

“But here, they just show us (a) video. I would like to have a pastor come every Sunday. We need this, because it helps us when we’re suffering a lot and don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

Both NEOCC detainees related these and other details during interviews with a pro bono attorney working for the International Institute of Akron, an immigration legal services and refugee resettlement organization. Lawyers from the organization shared transcripts of these interviews with RNS and asked for anonymity on their clients’ behalf.

CoreCivic Manager of Public Affairs Rodney E. King, in an email, said that NEOCC provides for the spiritual needs of detainees. The facility, he said, has “a full-time chaplain, as well as a part-time chaplain.”

He added that there are six active religious service volunteers who currently serve evangelical Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sikhs for the U.S. Marshals Service and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. One of those, the Catholic volunteer, has recently been cleared by ICE to minister to detainees and approvals are pending for a Muslim and a Sikh, King wrote.

But reports from human rights organizations, immigrant advocacy groups and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general chronicle religious rights concerns at various ICE detention centers. The concerns range from prison guards mocking some faith traditions to the disruption or denial of detainees’ rights to worship.

The religious rights of all prisoners in the United States, undocumented or not, are protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

Additionally, ICE National Detention Standards of 2011 require that detainees “shall have regular opportunities to participate in practices of their religious faiths” and that every facility have a chaplain or religious services coordinator to “recruit external clergy or religious service providers” for detainees whose faiths are not represented by on-site clergy.

The sheer number of detainees can make it difficult, even impossible, for staff chaplains alone to minister to such a needy and multitudinous flock. NEOCC at full capacity houses just over 2,000 prisoners, including as many as 352 detainees.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service, Tom Verde