Photo: Imelda. Photo by Erik Rosales.
This article comes from the June issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Congregations share peace.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
When authorities at a for-profit immigration detention center near Tucson, Ariz., permitted detainees to go outside once each day, Imelda and her fellow migrants gathered for worship. Imelda, a professor and pastor originally from Nicaragua, sometimes preached.
“God wanted to use me in this way,” Imelda said in April. “God comforted me, and I wanted to comfort those around me. The detention center, amid the pain and suffering we feel in there, is a place to grow in faith. I think of all of my sisters still in there, and I remember them.”
Imelda, whose last name is withheld for her safety, spoke in Spanish through a translator, Tina Schlabach, co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson.
Like so many others, Imelda fled unsafe conditions in her home country and migrated to the United States in search of asylum. After Imelda reached the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. authorities apprehended her and transferred her to the detention center in Arizona, where she was given a bond of $12,500.
“There are really no words to say how difficult it is to be in that place,” Imelda said. “Yet it is a place to see the face of the Lord, a place to learn how to love each other. It is a place that is very hard to be in on a physical level, yet it is a strong experience spiritually.”
Schlabach got to know Imelda through a visiting ministry she helped start in 2013 called Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program. The ministry helps organize people to visit the detention center and build relationships with the migrants there. Shalom became the ministry’s fiscal sponsor in 2016.
“Imelda would talk about life in the center and how she and others are supporting each other through prayer,” said Schlabach, reflecting on the three times she visited Imelda from February to March. “Each time she would talk about how much she hoped to be released, how she had not been able to talk with her family in Nicaragua for months because she didn’t have money for phone calls, how she was working on her asylum application inside detention.”
In Nicaragua, the university where Imelda taught was shut down because of a growing student movement protesting the country’s government. There was backlash against students and faculty, including Imelda, who protested the shutdown of the school. She and others were carried out of the university by force, attacked and threatened by the military. In addition to her work as an educator, Imelda is an evangelical pastor. She knows Mennonite congregations in Nicaragua.
What if a congregation, or a group of congregations, could post bond? That was the question Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church, wrestled with after hearing about Imelda. Florer-Bixler had participated in a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation Shalom Mennonite hosted in October 2018. Upon her return to North Carolina, she worked with the congregation to get involved in writing letters to people in detention.
Early this year, Florer-Bixler and Schlabach organized a group of congregations to contribute to Imelda’s bond. Within several weeks, 12 congregations, 10 of them Mennonite, as well as many individuals, had given varying amounts toward Imelda’s bond, and a GoFundMe page had raised several thousand dollars. (A list of the contributing congregations appears at the end of this article.)
The group posted bond for Imelda on April 1. She is now staying with friends in Indiana and attends an evangelical Spanish-speaking congregation and Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis.
“When I was released, I felt like I was starting a new life,” Imelda said. “Yet it is not easy even after being released. Being detained is a trauma. I often feel traumatized. I feel weak. I need to take God’s hand in this process.”
Schlabach said Imelda’s chance of winning her asylum case is much greater if she is not in detention.
“We can’t help everybody with their bonds because there are so many people in detention,” Schlabach said. “We assess which people have a good chance of going forward with their asylum cases and which bonds are reasonable that we can raise money for.”
Imelda’s $12,500 bond was relatively low, given that they often climb above $20,000, Schlabach said.
More than 20 people are registered as visitors through the visitation program. The detention center permits five visitors to be inside at a time, two mornings per week. Most visitors are not from Shalom, though the congregation supports the ministry financially, including two part-time staff.
“We try to visit people who don’t have family support and who are isolated,” Schlabach said. “The people we visit often we visit for months and sometimes years.”
U.S. authorities place people like Imelda, adults not accompanied with children, in immigration detention immediately upon their arrival in the United States, Schlabach said, even if they present themselves at an official U.S. port of entry and request asylum. This may not be the case, as has been in the news, for people who come with children.
For Schlabach and Florer-Bixler, it’s a moral issue to detain people who have come to the United States from experiences such as extreme poverty, domestic abuse or gang violence.
“The whole system of immigration detention is wrong, especially the for-profit model that is so prevalent, businesses that are making lots of money off an oppressive system,” Schlabach said. “We’d like to dismantle the system and, legislatively, there are groups working on that piece. In the meantime, we want to accompany those people who find themselves in detention.”
Both Schlabach and Florer-Bixler cited Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, as evidence for the biblical call to supporting people who are detained.
“The logic of immigration detention is to set the bail so high and make life so hopeless inside that people give up and return to places of danger and death,” Florer-Bixler said. “The immigration system looks at these people, often the most economically and socially vulnerable, and says, ‘You are nobody. No one is going to waste their money on you to pay this high bond.’ And then we look at Jesus, who comes into the life of backwater peasants and laborers, who tells them their lives are precious to God, that God has come into the world for them.”
Those that posted bond for Imelda “decided to call the bluff of the for-profit detention system,” Florer-Bixler said.
“Imelda is precious because she is made in God’s image, and we want every person who upholds the dehumanization of those seeking refuge to know that as a people living in the reign of God, we are coming for those who are God’s beloved,” Florer-Bixler said.
Sheldon C. Good is executive director of The Mennonite, Inc.
Congregations that contributed financially toward Imelda’s $12,500 bond for her release from immigration detention:
-Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship
-Blossom Hill Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
-Community Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
-Faith Mennonite Church, Minneapolis
-First Congregational United Church of Christ, Rhinelander, Wisconsin
-First Mennonite Church, Indianapolis
-Kalamazoo (Michigan) Mennonite Church
-Pittsburgh Mennonite Church
-Raleigh (North Carolina) Mennonite Church
-Seattle Mennonite Church
-Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, Tucson, Arizona
-St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church, Studio City, California
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