Over forty people attended a recent informational meeting on organizing a sanctuary program for paroled asylum seekers. The attendees represented such religious, human rights and community organizations as the International Institute of New Jersey, First Friends, IRATE, Human Rights First, the American Friends Service Committee, the Bellevue Survivors of Torture Program, and several local churches, in addition to several members of the Bergen Ethical Culture Society. The Society’s Public Affairs Committee hosted the meeting on Wednesday evening, April 21.
Society leader Joe Chuman put the meeting into the context of the Society’s work for asylum seekers. He mentioned that the head of the Elizabeth Detention Center has indicated that he would be, in principle, willing to parole asylum seekers to a well-organized sanctuary program. Setting up such a program therefore affords an opportunity to immediately reduce suffering. If successful, it might also encourage an expansion in the parole program.
The main speaker was Rev. Ruth Bersin, who educated the audience about the Boston-area sanctuary program Refugee Immigration Ministry (RIM, on the web at www.r-i-m.net). This is the first such sanctuary program in the country and remains the only one organized on a large scale. RIM now includes nine clusters of congregations, each sponsoring one or more paroled asylum seekers.
Clusters may include from 3 to 12 congregations, which cooperate in providing parolees with the basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, psychological counseling, but above all, a sense of community. Perhaps the most moving part of Rev. Bersin’s presentation was her discussion of the value that membership in a community has for the detainees. Since these are people who have had every human connection — family, culture, religion, material environment — ripped away, a community in which they can redevelop something like the normal sense of rootedness is crucial for their physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery. Indeed, they themselves are encouraged to help others in turn, through RIM, which is beneficial to them and to the newcomers.
Rev. Bersin also discussed logistical and material needs, but, perhaps surprisingly, she said that these were easy to fulfill. Participating congregations are consistently generous with money, clothing, furniture, and the like. The hardest thing turns out to be keeping the volunteers from becoming so wrapped up in their helping roles that they find it emotionally difficult to give their beneficiaries the chance to separate and build their own lives. Skilled management of the program is necessary to minimize this, she said.
Charles Mulligan, of the Interfaith Refugee Action Team at Elizabeth (IRATE), preceded Rev. Bersin. IRATE was formed by persons who had considerable experience visiting detained asylum seekers and who reached the conclusion that organized political activity to support these detainees was a necessary adjunct to the individual visits they continued to undertake. After seeing federal relief advance through much of the legislative process, only to become politically impossible after September 11, 2001, IRATE has decided that legislative advocacy is, for now, a lost cause, and that forming a sanctuary program is the best hope for helping these detainees.
Political asylum seekers are persons who arrive in the United States and then declare their intent to seek asylum because they are fleeing persecution in their own countries. Because their claims and histories are immediately subject to the most intense scrutiny, they pose virtually no security threat to the United States. Nevertheless, at the discretion of the local head of the immigration service, they can be detained instead of being allowed to live freely in the community while their cases are being adjudicated, a process that can take two or three years. The immigration service in the New York–New Jersey area has been among the harshest, generally detaining almost all asylum seekers in either of two privately run detention centers, one outside of Kennedy Airport and one in the industrial area of Elizabeth outside of Newark airport. Conditions in these centers are at best comparable to those in maximum security prisons, and the detained asylum seekers enjoy fewer rights than convicted prisoners. Studies at Bellevue Hospital have shown that detention only worsens the mental health of the many asylum seekers who have fled torture and are already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
After the presentations, there was an extensive question and answer session, and additional information on legal issues was provided by Amy Gottlieb of the American Friends Service Committee in Newark.
Those present signed a list stating what commitments they could make toward setting up a program for paroled asylum seekers in northeastern New Jersey. A number of people volunteered to participate in a steering committee. The Public Affairs Committee will soon be setting up meetings of that committee to plan how to proceed. As we move forward, there will be many opportunities for members to become involved in the sanctuary program. For more information, please contact Amy Baker Fine, chair of the Public Affairs Committee through our office at 201-836-5187.
Public Affairs Committee