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January 25 - February 7, 2015

Providing asylum seekers a place to go when released Men’s house has 17 residents from 16 countries

By Michelle Martin

Staff writer

Three residents make lunch together in the kitchen of the Interfaith Commitee for Detained Immigrants' House of Hospitality in the former convent at St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish in Cicero. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Three men share laughs over lunch at the Interfaith Commitee for Detained Immigrants' House of Hospitality in the former convent at St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish in Cicero. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Two men study in the library at the Interfaith Commitee for Detained Immigrants' House of Hospitality in the former convent at St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish in Cicero. Seventeen men from 16 different countries live there after being released from detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Another house, at Catholic Theological Union, caters to the needs of women and children. Most of the residents are seeking asylum. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Two residents study in the library at the Interfaith Commitee for Detained Immigrants' House of Hospitality in the former convent at St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish in Cicero. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

A resident works on a laptop in the library at the Interfaith Commitee for Detained Immigrants' House of Hospitality in the former convent at St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish in Cicero. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

A resident chats with case manager Rebecca Sinclair at the Interfaith Commitee for Detained Immigrants' House of Hospitality in the former convent at St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish in Cicero. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

When Michael, now 29, left Eritrea more than two years ago, he didn’t think he had much choice.

He had been a student and worked in accounting for an international nongovermental orginization. The government of Eritrea, which Human Rights Watch says has one of the worst human rights records in the world, turned against his NGO and several others and imprisoned their workers. Michael set out for Sudan.

His journey took him through Sudan and South Sudan, through Kenya and Uganda and South Africa, over the ocean to Brazil, and then through Columbia, Panama, Guatemala and Mexico. He rode in trucks and walked and flew in airplanes. On Feb. 27, 2013, he presented himself at the U.S. border in Texas and asked for asylum.

ICE — the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — brought him to the Chicago area, and then, after deciding he was not a threat, released him from detention, with nothing but the clothes on his back when he arrived in Texas and what few possessions he had managed to keep with him. He didn’t know anyone in the area or have a way to get money, food or shelter.

Now Michael is one of 17 men living in one of two “houses of hospitality” operated by the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants specifically for detainees released in the Chicago area who have no friends or family to help them. Men without families here are housed in the former convent at St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish in Cicero; women and families are housed on the fourth floor of the residence building at Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park.

The men’s house currently has 17 residents from 16 countries, mostly in Africa, and Hyde Park facility has five women on their own, as well as two families, one a father, mother and child and one a mother with three children.

All of the residents receive food, shelter and clothing, a small stipend for personal needs, and help learning English. The committee’s case managers help connect them with legal help and try to get counseling for those who need it, although mental health resources are limited, said Mercy Sister JoAnn Persch, the interfaith committee’s executive director.

“There’s a lot of work,” Sister JoAnn said. “We have to provide them with everything.”

Both houses opened May 1.

The houses grew out of one of the committee’s programs, the Post-Detention Accompaniment Network, said Sister JoAnn. The network began when lawyers or other people knew when a detainee would be released and did not have friends or family in the area to turn to, and would call the people who prayed outside ICE’s Broadview processing center every Friday morning. Those Friday prayers, which started with a handful of people, now draw dozens every week and sometimes hundreds. They are another of the interfaith committee’s ministries.

The committee would be asked to pick people up at the ICE facility at 101 W. Congress Parkway, and take them to the bus station, or give them money for a bus ticket, or help them get clothing appropriate to the weather.

“People are released in whatever they were wearing when they were picked up.” Sister JoAnn said. “We’ve had people released in this (January) weather in shorts and T-shirts.”

After years of prayers outside the Broadview facility and working with ICE, the agency now allows the group to provide clothing before releasing detainees or putting them on airplanes back to their home countries, Sister JoAnn said.

“But really, they just release people and point them in the direction of the bus station,” said Viatorain Brother Michael Gosch, who coordinated the Post-Detention Accompaniment Network “I have to say, for the most part, the people who work at Greyhound have been very helpful.”

While the network helps those who have somewhere to go by making sure they get to the bus station and have what they need to reach their destination, until this year, it had no ready solution for those that couldn’t even name where they wanted to go.

That situation proved deadly for one asylum-seeker. A woman in her 20s named Marie Joseph, who came from Haiti to ask for asylum, was released in July 2011 on a day when no one was available to help her, so her lawyer took her to the Pacific Garden Mission shelter. The next day, when a volunteer went to look for her, she wasn’t there. Her body was later found in an abandoned building.

“It just totally devastated the lawyer, it devastated her family in Haiti,” Sister JoAnn said.

Now the group has a hotline set up so immigration attorneys, workers at detention facilities or the detainees themselves can get in touch when someone needs assistance.

The group decided it needed houses of hospitality nearly 5 years ago, and getting St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish to lease them the convent was no trouble. But it took time to raise the money for needed renovations and to get permits from the Cicero municipal government, which said the property was zoned for a single-family residence.

The group also is working with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, getting a grant to be part of a pilot program that allows its members to recommend to ICE detainees who could safely be released, and Sister JoAnn said it could easily fill a third house if it could find the money to pay for it.

Opening the houses, and hiring people to staff them, has expanded the organization’s annual budget to more than $800,000. It’s paid staff are those working at the houses: case managers, house managers, kitchen coordinators. The rest of its ministry is generally handled by more than 200 volunteers, including Sister JoAnn and Brother Michael.

Brother Michael said that in December, the group helped 10 people released from detention, but the number varies from week to week and month to month.

In addition to material needs, the detainees need help figuring out what to do next, said case manager Rebecca Sinclair. “They need knowledge about the immigration system and help connecting to legal assistance,” she said.

They also often need English classes and help filing for a work permit, which takes at least six months to be granted.

The residents of the houses are often in legal limbo. Cases can be scheduled years out — one man had a scheduling hearing last March, and was given a court date in 2019; another had a hearing date cancelled because the judge was sick and then was rescheduled for a year later. Work permits are to be issued 150 days after the application is filed, but the clock can stop running or even be started over again if there is any kind of a snag.

One resident, Patrick, entered the United States on April 15, 2014, making his way from Rwanda to Mexico and thus to the U.S. border, where he requested asylum when he was asked for his documents. He left his home and his brother because, he said, he needed protection.

After a time in detention in Texas, Patrick, who thinks he is 29, was sent to the Midwest and he met volunteers from the interfaith committee for detained immigrants, so when he was released from detention to wait for a hearing on his asylum plea, he knew where to go.

“I’m peaceful in this house,” he said. “It’s different than in detention. They didn’t give us enough time to sleep, and the food was always cold. Here, I go to school to improve my English, we have the library, we have the TV room, we can watch a movie. Everybody who lives in this house has his own room.”

The men share cooking and cleaning, and are learning to eat the cuisines of their different countries. They go on outings together, including one to Brookfield Zoo. “Everybody was happy there,” he said.

Patrick is waiting for a scheduling hearing to find out when his case will be heard.

His housemate, Michael, was released before the house in Cicero opened. Brother Michael found him temporary shelter, and later housing in an apartment with roommates, until May.

Now working part-time for Catholic Charities and earning money, Michael was getting ready to move out to another apartment in January. His case, which had been postponed three times — once because of the government shutdown — also should be heard soon, he said.

Michael said that if he receives asylum and can stay in the United States, he will probably remain in the Chicago area, despite his dislike of the winter weather.

“All my friends are here,” he said.