Aiding imprisoned immigrants a joy, challenge

Of the 2.3 million inmates housed in detention facilities in the United States, many have entered the country illegally. Statistics vary on what the percentage may be, but one report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, for example, puts the number in California at 13 percent, directly costing taxpayers $1 billion annually. Most in this group are from Mexico.

Many Catholic dioceses in the United States pour significant resources into ministering to those in prison, recalling Christ’s words as he foretells his praise of the just on the last day: “I was ... in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:36). 

Ministering to inmates who came to the country illegally is not significantly different than doing so for the rest of the prison population, volunteers say, but there are enough differences that result in unique needs. 

Inmates’ concerns

Deacon Jim Walsh, who is the Restorative Justice program director for the Diocese of San Diego, works as a detention ministry chaplain and coordinates 340 volunteers who serve at 27 detention centers in the diocese. After working as a corporate executive for 30 years, Deacon Walsh became a deacon and began working in prison ministry 11 years ago. 

Inmates have many concerns, he said, including “fear and anxiety” as to when they will be released, what they will do when they are released, whether or not they will return to prison and concerns about family. 

Illegal immigrants “have the added concern about facing deportation once they are released,” said Walsh, who has started a weekly program with Immaculate Heart Radio, with detention ministry a regular topic. 

Kevin Starrs, director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Phoenix, agreed that one of the concerns of illegal immigrant prisoners was the fear of being deported at the conclusion of their sentences. Many have family in the United States, he said, which makes for an “ongoing stressful situation.”

Many illegals speak only Spanish, said Starrs, who has been working with illegal immigrant prisoners, particularly from Mexico and Central and South America, for 20 years. While that can be a problem in communicating with prison guards, it is not a barrier to communication with fellow inmates. 

“In prisons, everything is done by race — blacks eat with blacks, whites eat with whites, Chicanos (Mexican Americans) eat with Chicanos, pisas (Mexican immigrants) eat with pisas,” he said. “A white can say ‘hi’ to a Mexican, but he can’t eat with one at the lunch table, so you’re dealing with your own people who speak your language.”

Resources needed

Deacon Peter Brause of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and his friend Rob Auten minister to men at a detention facility in Chino in Southern California. They assist at a weekly Mass (or Communion service when no priest is available) and teach catechesis. Deacon Brause said they observe an anti-Catholic and anti-Christian bias in prison.

“It shows something about our inmates when they even show up for Mass,” he said. “We want to give them the tools to know and defend their faith, in a language they can understand.”

Deacon Brause and Auten said their biggest need in working with the illegal immigrant population is for bilingual catechetical materials. Mike Gutierrez, detention ministry coordinator through Catholic Community Services in the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., said his ministry also has a special need for Spanish-language Bibles. 

Forty-five miles north of Tucson is the Eloy Detention Center, a facility that houses 1,600 illegal immigrants. According to Gutierrez, many in that facility are receptive to the message of the Church, which presents a unique opportunity for evangelization.

“I always get excited when I go,” he said. “In our services, everyone participates, and everyone has a chance to share.”

In addition to Bibles, there’s also a need for prayer books and other religious materials, Gutierrez added, particularly from Dismas Ministry, which is a national Catholic outreach for inmates.

Deacon Eddie Stoughton is associate director of the Office of Correction Ministries for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. He noted that he has ministered to illegal immigrants who finish their sentence and are deported, only to return illegally to the United States and again be imprisoned.

In addition to offering a plea for English and Spanish religious materials — Bibles are a particular expense — Deacon Stoughton added that there is a need for materials in Vietnamese as well.

Volunteers sought

Starrs, who works in the Diocese of Phoenix, said his greatest need is for additional volunteers to assist with religious services for inmates, and if they are bilingual and can work with Spanish-speaking immigrants, that is an added bonus. He noted that the enthusiasm of the prison ministry volunteers has always kept him motivated in his job.

“We have older women who are full of passion for helping the imprisoned,” he said. “Seeing their zeal has really helped me stay committed to my job.”

Ministry to illegal immigrants can be easier, Deacon Walsh added, because they often are housed in immigration detention facilities and are there because they have broken immigration laws and not committed other crimes. 

“Our programs in these facilities are more personal and liturgical because the security level and security concerns are not the same. Our volunteers do not view them as criminals,” said Deacon Walsh, who echoed the need for volunteers.

Living in Southern California, Walsh said, there’s no shortage of Spanish-speakers, but there is a need for volunteers able to communicate with illegal immigrants from other parts of the world, including China, Africa and the Middle East.

“It’s not dangerous, it’s extremely rewarding and God is calling us to serve others. Our volunteers discover that they leave with more than when they walked in,” Deacon Walsh said.

Rewarding work

Deacon Brause and Auten are members of the Knights of Columbus and use a catechetical course offered through the Knights’ Catholic Information Service. They regularly rely on the generosity of their fellow Knights to provide the materials and encouraged support for Knights’ initiatives, which help fund their work.

The work has borne much fruit, Deacon Brause said. “The men we work with have made mistakes but regret them and are trying to find their way back to God,” he said. “In fact, I have found Jesus to be more present in the Chino facility than in my own parish.”

Deacon Stoughton has worked in prison ministry for 11 years; his wife is a volunteer as well. His newest initiative, he said, was introducing ACTS Missions to spread the Gospel into his detention ministry, as well as educating the public about the rewards of prison ministry. “You meet the nicest people in prison,” he said. “They are not the monsters the media can portray them to be.”

Jim Graves writes from California.