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HIGHLAND PARK, NJ—On February 15, an event entitled “Voices from the Darkness,” offered two opportunities to attendees: a scathing, unapologetic criticism of America’s immigrant detention system and a hearty home cooked meal with members of the church community.
The Reformed Church of Highland Park hosted the event, organized by Deportation & Immigration Response Equipo (D.I.R.E.), a grassroots group which defends and alert the community of immigration-related injustice and abuse of power.
Mary Denver was working the door, but donations were merely suggested.
“Are you sure you can spare it? If you need the money, don’t worry about it!” she told attendees as they filed in. It was that kind of hospitality which dominated the tone of the evening’s event.
The presentation was theatrical yet simplistic. The fold-up tables typically used for communal dining were arranged octagonally to form a structured, barrack-like stage in the center.
The stage was set with one cot with a dark blanket: the bare essentials of prison life.
As various members of the church community rose to read writings from imprisoned immigrants, stories of the oppressed began to unfold.
This particular event showcased the horrors of Elizabeth Detention Center, located just 30 minutes outside of New Brunswick.
D.I.R.E. spotlit the stories of people of color fleeing mortal danger in their home countries just to be incarcerated in the United States.
These firsthand accounts of the privately-owned prison, run by CoreCivic, suggested asylum seekers are robbed of their freedom, identities, and dignity.
One reading, masterfully delivered by current Rutgers student Rafael Lozada, told of “count time,” a procedure where detainees drop everything to be herded together in darkness for nearly an hour just to be counted by the guards. There is no talking for fear of punishment.
According to the accounts, immigrants in detention are “treated like animals.”
Detainees are given three pairs of socks, underwear, and shirts for six months, according to the speakers. Communal showers force people together five, six at a time, shedding all semblance of privacy.
If they are hungry, they may be fed nothing but white rice with mayonnaise, and if they refuse, they could be force fed.
Joel Wattacheril, the co-founder of D.I.R.E. along with the Reformed Church’s own Pastor Seth-Kaper Dale, closed the program with powerful messages for the public.
Wattacheril impressed that this is not just an issue on the border, and it is not just an issue for new immigrants seeking asylum.
Foreign nationals who have been living in this country for decades have been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents for misdemeanors and sent to prisons for deportation.
“We can end this!” is the slogan which concluded Wattacheril’s urgent call to action.
Wattacheril told New Brunswick Today this was not a fight to reform immigration prisons, but to abolish them.
He reinforced the question he had posed to the larger audience a moment earlier: “Did we reform slavery? Or did we abolish it? Reform does not make innocent people free. We want to give light to the darkness.”
The fight against immigrant detention is ongoing, and the stories of the imprisoned heard that Saturday certainly color the canvas with darkness. But D.I.R.E.’s efforts seem to be on the way to accomplishing just what Wattacheril hopes: offering the ray of light which can recolor that canvas with kindness, empathy, and equity.
Mohsin is a third-year Rutgers student whose passion for local activism, artistic expression, and organizational leadership is only matched by his desire to bring intriguing, relevant stories to the New Brunswick community.