Detainees in ICE Facility Hunger for Encounter with Christ

“Who are we,” asked one detainee, “that the Church should visit us?”

That sentiment – one of humbleness and a longing for the Sacraments and fellowship – characterized a pastoral visit by seven California Bishops and others to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Adelanto, CA, last week.

More than 350 men and women housed in the high desert facility attended four Masses, flocked to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in Spanish, English and Vietnamese and enjoyed fellowship with the delegation of twenty.

“It was palpable that for this encounter they hungered,” said Bishop Jaime Soto, Sacramento, and president of the California Catholic Conference that organized the visit.  “This hunger and the reverential disposition of those present made each of the four sessions a living temple of the Spirit with Christ as the capstone.”

Masses were held in two small chapels in the facility.  The detainees were from many nations and awaiting court appearances for a variety of immigration violations.  Many have lived in the United States for decades and then been caught up in an immigration raid or their non-citizenship status recognized after being convicted of some criminal offense.   The vast majority, however, are simple immigration violations.

In conversations between Masses, many detainees expressed their deep gratitude to the Bishops and others for visiting.  A different Bishop celebrated each Mass and all tried to reassure the detainees of the love of Jesus and the solidarity of the Church with them.

Because of the crowded conditions – more than 110 women attended one of the Masses in a chapel that had seating for a crowd maybe half that size – reconciliation took place simultaneously with Mass, and tears could be heard even over the exuberant signing during the Eucharist.

Besides the seven Bishops, two additional priests, four religious sisters and seven lay people attended.  A Southern Baptist chaplain, who works at the facility, facilitated the visit.

In reflections afterward, several members of the delegation mentioned how blessed they felt to be “humble workers in the vineyard” by participating. 

During lunch, where the delegation ate the same meal as the detainees, Bishop Alexander Salazar sat alone for some time just to contemplate how the food reflected the nourishment of the Eucharistic table.

“The entire visit,” he said, “was an encounter with Christ.”

But there was also a sense of personal responsibility for participating in a society that allows for a broken immigration system to exist and a vow to work to change the system.

The Adelanto ICE Processing Facility is 75 miles north of the City of San Bernardino and is located in the diocese of the same name.  Fortunately, the diocese has an extensive jail/detention ministry that regularly serves Adelanto and more than 20 other prisons and jails around the diocese.  A team, led by Sr. Rosario Coronado, ministers in the facility on a regular basis.

“I was struck by the quiet, servant leadership of Sr. Rosario Coronado, who is present at seven of these institutions in the diocese,” said Sr. Kathleen Bryant, Sisters of Charity.  “She was visibly well loved by all and could work the group into enthusiastic responses.  As a member of Hermanas Evangelizadoras Eucarísticas de los Pobres, she cried with the detainees as she listened to their pain yet joyfully played the tambourine with gusto and got them to smile.” 

On average, more than 40,000 people are held for immigration-related issues per day in the United States.  The Adelanto facility is a for-profit center that leases detainee space to ICE, other immigration agencies and the Department of Justice.  This particular facility has been the location of several suicides over the years.

As they were led back to their quarters, detainees received rosaries and other religious articles – a devotion that many hold very dear. 

As for the delegates, they departed with resolve to work to fix a broken immigration system and lasting images of the people they met.

“I have photos embedded in my memory of specific people,” said Abraham Joven, Advocacy and Justice for Immigrants program director for the Diocese of San Bernardino.  “A 29-year-old mom of six  who told me she had been in the U.S. for 24 years of her life, the young Cuban man who looked trapped, the woman from Cameroon who said she feared the violence there if she was returned, crying grandmothers, sobbing men when one spokesman told us, ‘We are not criminals!’”

Bishops who attended included Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, Bishop Armando Ochoa of Fresno, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Auxiliary Bishop Alexander Salazar of Los Angeles, Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen of Orange, Auxiliary Bishop Rutilio Del Riego of San Bernardino and Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of Los Angeles. 

Bishops will often visit the incarcerated in their dioceses.  Bishop Barnes, for instance, commemorated Good Friday with the detainees in Adelanto.

The visit was poignant for the delegation for another reason.  Bishop Richard Garcia of Monterey, who died last month, was the chair of the Conference’s Restorative Justice Committee and ministered often to those in prison.  He was one of the original organizers of the visit that had been in planning since late 2017.

“Bishop Garcia was there with us,” said Bishop Salazar, expressing a sentiment many in the delegation also voiced.

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