Life is lonely for the immigrant detainees at the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center in St. Paul, Minn. These individuals spend up to 18 hours per day behind bars while the courts determine their immigration status. They experience little to no human interaction – most of their families can't visit because they aren't documented. Detainees who do get visitors connect through the lobby video phone. They have no right to a free phone call, and the phone calls they can make cost a lot of money.
That is where the Rev. John Guttermann and his interfaith program Conversations with Friends (CWF) come in. Through CWF, Guttermann, covenant minister of the United Church of Christ in New Brighton (Minn.), and his volunteers visit the detainees for one hour twice a month. Because of the tight restrictions, this is often the only nonofficial, in-person contact the detainees will experience before they are released or deported – a process that takes an average of 100 days and rarely has a happy ending.
"This is non-punitive detention – they are being held only to show up for hearings about their deportation," said Guttermann. "But what this is like, however, is jail. They have to wear the orange jumpsuit. When they are shipped around for hearings, they have chains on their hands and feet."
While the detainees are mostly men, their reasons for being there vary. Some are students who went out of compliance with their student visas, some seek asylum, and others are crime victims. Some have been victims of domestic violence or human trafficking, and still others are lawful residents with American relatives, jobs and connections to their communities, Guttermann says. But regardless of the reason, since beginning this work a few years ago, Guttermann has known of only a few detainees who have won their cases and were released. The rest have been separated from their families and deported back to their homelands.
"It's extremely difficult," Guttermann explains. "You could have someone get up in the morning, leave for work, get picked up and that is the last time they see their families."
Guttermann and his volunteers not only provide basic human contact during their monthly visits, but they also provide the essential motivation to keep fighting. Because they are not considered U.S. citizens, detainees are not automatically given a court-appointed lawyer. For those with the means to hire one, the process can take months. It can also take months to request any existing papers from their home countries stating that the detainees have the right to be in the U.S., or that returning to their homelands would be unsafe. Guttermann says detainees often are so disheartened by the process they end up signing the voluntary deportation form the court offers them just to remove themselves from the situation.
"It's not common for them to talk to an attorney, and often times, they sign their voluntary deportation slip because they are tired of being there," Guttermann explains. "We can help them stick with the process."
CWF has about 25 volunteers, including members of the religious community, students, former Peace Corps volunteers and immigration rights activists. Each volunteer is required to attend a three-part training program that includes a background check and an orientation led by a jail staff member. Volunteers are also educated on the history of the program, an overview of the immigration deportation system, boundaries training, and conversation practice. Some volunteer for political reasons and others because they feel called to do the work. But all of them agree it's the right thing to do, and Guttermann is optimistic that impending federal legislation may finally provide the real immigration reform so many have been waiting for.
"This is a very small thing we do, offering a compassionate presence," Guttermann says. "But we do it because we care. It's just that simple."