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May 10, 2009

Planned protest turns to celebration in Broadview

By Michelle Martin


Mercy Sisters Jo Ann Persch, 74, and Pat Murphy, 80, were prepared to go to jail April 30.

The sisters, and several dozen allies, including other religious leaders, planned to block the driveway of the Broadview Immigrant Detention Center on that day, to protest the lack of access pastoral care workers have to immigrants in the center.

But because of a last-minute decision by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Field Office Director Ricardo Wong, the sisters and other leaders were celebrating instead.

After an April 28 meeting, Wong announced that pastoral care workers would be allowed to visit deportees on the buses before they leave Broadview each Friday morning for the next two months, while the workers continue to negotiate for greater access to detainees in Broadview.

The processing center is the first place detained immigrants are brought after being arrested and the last place they go before they are deported. More than 11,000 immigrants have been deported from Broadview in the last year. Detainees include both documented and undocumented immigrants, many of whom have lived in the United States for years; torture survivors; asylum seekers; and vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses.

“It’s a small step,” said Persch in a May 1 phone interview, hours after boarding the buses outside the detention center.

On that morning, they said, there were three vehicles leaving the center for O’Hare International Airport: a large bus; a smaller bus, similar to shuttle buses used by hotels; and a minivan.

In all the vehicles, the men were separated into smaller compartments, wearing shackles and locked behind Plexiglass. The minivan had three women closer to the front, wearing shackles but not locked behind a barrier.

“They were crying and trying to embrace us,” Persch said. “One of them gave us her address (in the United States) and asked us to visit her family. She has a husband and two children here.”

Another worker, a minister from the United Church of Christ, was able to speak with some of the men through a back door that was opened to allow communication.

“We tell them who we are, and that there are people who care about them, and that we will be with them in spirit on their journey,” Persch said. “Then we say a prayer with them.”

The ICE employees on the buses were very cooperative, Persch reported. “One said to me, ‘God bless you for what you are doing,’” she said.

The two Mercy sisters have led prayer vigils for the immigrants in the center, often joined by the immigrants’ families, every Friday morning for the last 2½ years, and they spearheaded a successful effort to get a law in Illinois requiring county jails that house immigrant detainees to give pastoral care workers access.

That law goes into effect this summer. In the meantime, the sisters continue to visit detainees being held in the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock once every two weeks.

The celebration included several priests from the Archdiocese of Chicago — members of Priests for Justice — and members of Brothers and Sisters of Immigrants, an organization of Catholic religious men and women.

Following the prayer service, Wong took a delegation of six people on a brief tour of Broadview facility, but Persch said they were not allowed to come in contact with any of the detainees.