Invest in community-based alternatives to immigration detention

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Because our immigration system treats human beings in deportation proceedings like inventory, the difficulties do not always end when people are released. Recently some committee members offered a ride to the bus station and money for a ticket for man we met outside the Chicago ICE Field Office, who was wearing shorts and flip-flops on a 30-degree day. Sometimes our volunteers open their homes to people who were transferred hundreds of miles from their homes while in ICE custody and have no place to sleep. Those who suffer from medical or mental illness face particular challenges.
 
In May we will open the Marie Joseph House of Hospitality, which will provide shelter, meals, transportation, and community support so people can stick out their immigration proceedings. We will be able to provide these services for significantly less than the $122 to $164 per day ICE says it pays to hold someone in jail.
 
The home will have 18 bedrooms and extra space for short-term residents, a small capacity compared to the 33,400 people ICE typically detains each night. But it is a start.
 
We are not alone in our efforts. A network of similar shelters is emerging across the country. The outpouring of financial, in-kind, and volunteer support we receive from communities of all backgrounds shows us the immense generosity Americans have when people are in need.
 
As Alabama Republican Congressman Spencer BachusSpencer BachusThe FDA should approve the first disease-modifying treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Study: Payday lenders fill GOP coffers Pope Francis encourages building bridges to address challenges  MORE observed during a recent House Judiciary hearing, “It seems there is an overuse of detention.” John Morton said that “alternatives to detention” programs are promising. We agree. Outside detention, people have better access to lawyers, doctors, and other support. Congress should use new immigration legislation to allow ICE to invest in alternatives rather than prisons. To get it right, they need to consult with communities and groups like ours.
 
We are on the ground and know how to address problems that prevent people from showing up at court hearings. An ankle bracelet monitor is not always the answer.
 
One of the first residents at our home will be a woman who ICE detained at age 64 because 20 years earlier she had missed some court dates. After a judge ordered her release, ICE put her on an ankle bracelet that cut off her circulation and scraped her skin. A doctor’s note convinced ICE to remove the bracelet, but her next court date is not until 2015 and she is not eligible for a work permit.
 
Another future resident is an Iranian asylum seeker who lived in a homeless shelter after his release but had to move on when he reached the shelter’s three-month maximum stay. A priest contacted us after finding the man asleep on the rectory porch. The man has a brother in The Netherlands, but no way to get there. His next court date is not for several months. We are providing him housing, connecting him with mental health services, and trying to reunite him with his brother abroad.
 
But there are so many people we cannot reach without more resources. We’ve named our new home after one of them. Marie Joseph was detained for eight months. She was a lovely young woman from Haiti seeking asylum. She suffered from heart problems and mental illness and struggled with substance abuse. She should never have been in jail, but she was one of the lucky few to find a lawyer, who won her case. ICE released Marie in the middle of one of the hottest summers in Chicago history. She had family in Georgia, but no way to get there. Her lawyer got her into a shelter for a night while we sought other options. Then we lost contact with Marie. Three days later, she was on life support at a local hospital. She did not survive.
Like most aspects of immigration reform, expanding alternatives to detention is not just a political platform. Lives hang in the balance.
 
Sister Pat Murphy, RSM, and Sister JoAnn Persch, RSM, are volunteer justice ministers for the Sisters of Mercy Chicago’s West/Midwest community, where they lead a coalition that has provided pastoral care and accompaniment to hundreds of immigrants during their detention and court proceedings and upon their release.
 
Brother Michael Gosch, CSV, is the promoter of peace and justice for his religious congregation, the Clerics of St. Viator.  For the past 9 years, he has worked as a social worker in a Waukegan, Illinois, high school that serves children from immigrant families.

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