In the past few years, we Dominican Sisters of Peace have tried to understand many immigration issues: the vital need for reform; why so many mothers and children (many of them babies) have risked the trek through the deserts of the world and arrived by tens of thousands to the United States and elsewhere in the world; how to deal with the millions of displaced peoples throughout the world forced to flee unimaginably brutal violence, assassination of family members, forced membership in gangs and warring armies, genocide and extreme poverty.
Yes, we have spoken about the need for immigration reform – and, yet, it seems that the citizens in our country, more often than not, respond with deeper xenophobia, racism, and intolerance. I truly believe that if immigration reform is to come, it will not happen because of the Department of Homeland Security or the government, but because the people of this country will make their voices and wills known.
But, just for a moment or two, I would like to reflect on what it has been like for me to work for over six years as a chaplain at a federal detention center in Florence, Arizona. Over the years, I have had some very indelible memories etched in my mind and heart:
This spring, a young Guatemalan man told me about carrying his sister on his back through the desert on his journey to the United States because she was sick with her period.
I spoke with several young transgender detainees who shared their stories of growing up in families where a parent beat them to force “normal” behavior, where they were battered, ridiculed, and even raped by police, and how they strive every day to become their true selves.
I have seen many humble young and older men unabashedly kneel on the concrete floor of a makeshift worship space in front of a crucifix or image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
I witnessed an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officer on numerous occasions be father and brother to many teenagers who had given a false age on arrest in hopes of getting free and helping their families survive.
I have seen mentally ill detainees, even a blind and another deaf detainee who have crossed the border in hopes of finding a way to become whole.
Every single day, I heard stories from detainees that made my heart ache, that cried out for justice and compassion that spoke of the unmistakable presence of God among us. Every single day, I saw a security guard, an ICE official, a nurse, a kitchen worker, a lawyer, or a judge who spoke or acted with compassion and with diligence.
Being among the detainees in Florence, Arizona shaped and continues to shape my life in ways in which I could never imagine. I have come to know people from so many cultures, religions, and languages that my world is constantly changing. I am grateful for that.
The detainees whom I have met were and continue to be my church. It is from them and in that environment of chaos, doubt, unfreedom, and broken dreams that I see the loving face of God.