In addition to its charitable work, the ecumenical, non-sectarian group, organized eight years ago, takes strong exception to conditions at the center-operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-and the fact that most detainees have not committed any crime, but are simply seeking a safe haven in America.
Retired banker Greg Sullivan, a parishioner of St. Elizabeth Parish in Wyckoff, has been director of First Friends' Elizabeth Detention Center Visitor Project since last September. "Since 1997, any immigrant not listed as a criminal or terrorist, requesting political asylum at JFK, Newark Liberty or Philadelphia airports, is immediately transferred to this facility in irons," Sullivan said. The 300-person facility, a converted warehouse on the edge of Newark Airport, also is used for resident aliens who are subject to deportation proceedings, Sullivan said.
Others in the Archdiocese of Newark share Sullivan's concerns regarding those housed at the center. Thomas Mungovern, staff attorney for the Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Assistance Division of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, represents detainees at the Elizabeth facility. After screening detainees to see if there is a case for asylum, Mungovern begins legal proceedings to assist the detainees. The process, if successful, yields lawful permanent resident status for a year and citizenship after five years. The average case for a detainee lasts three months, he noted.
Citing the success his office has had in recent years, Mungovern explained that he is currently working with detainees from such far-flung countries as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Tibet, China and Liberia. Those seeking asylum, the Catholic Charities' attorney continued, are persecuted in their homelands for such things as political expression, religious affiliation and ethnicity. Mungovern described the Elizabeth center as "a deplorable (place) to greet someone coming to the United States for help."
Two years ago, Mungovern called attention to the plight of Tibetan monks who had been detained at the center (see The Catholic Advocate, Aug. 9, 2006). The men fled through the Himalayan Mountains on their journey to freedom.
Sullivan's road to First Friends began about six years ago when he and his wife participated in the archdiocese's "JustFaith" program. JustFaith, explained Kay Furlani, director of the archdiocesan Human Concerns office, is a parish-based, adult-formation program that offers an opportunity to grow spiritually and to become more generous and compassionate.
JustFaith provides a lively and challenging context in which participants can deepen their commitment to care for those who are poor and vulnerable and to become advocates for justice, Furlani said. "It changes lives, inspires faithful witness and transforms the world through love and service. The intent is to provide a tapestry of learning opportunities that emphasize and enliven the remarkable justice tradition of the Church."
Msgr. Robert J. Harrington, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Elizabeth-featured in The Catholic Advocate's Feb. 6 "Parish Profile" report-sees Catholic social teaching being carried out through the faith-based work of groups like First Friends, "visiting with strangers, compassion for the poor and working for justice."
An important aspect of First Friends, Msgr. Harrington noted, is prayer, citing the annual Ash Wednesday prayer vigil outside the Elizabeth center, which is now in its 10th year. Calling the vigil "very ecumenical," Sullivan said attendees included Father Jack Martin, parochial vicar at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, members of the Presbyterian and Lutheran faiths as well as the academic communities of Seton Hall University, Fordham University and Mother Seton Regional High School in Clark. Several orders of Religious Sisters also attended, he stressed, including the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph, Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, the Benedictine Sisters, Franciscan Sisters of Peace, the Sisters of Charity and Dominican Blauvelt Sisters.
Part of Sullivan's job description involves him working with graduate-school interns from Monmouth University. Before being taken in to First Friends, each intern undergoes a training program he termed as learning "the dos and don'ts of speaking with detainees." Those being held at the center, Sullivan noted, usually are quite apprehensive regarding their surroundings and do not know their legal status.
Once training is completed, a volunteer goes to the center with an experienced member of First Friends. The check-in process, said Sullivan, involves going through a metal detector and an air-lock door into what he termed is a "ghastly" visitors' room. Visits can only be made evenings and on the weekend. Conversation is on the phone because detainee and visitor are separated by a glass partition. Security cameras are everywhere and visits are limited to an hour. Stressing that detainees typically have no friends or relatives who can visit, Sullivan said the primary goal of First Friends is to be just that-friends and companions to those living in isolation.
It has been Sullivan's experience that the average stay for a detainee is a year to a year and a half. During visits from First Friends, he explained, detainees most often ask that prayers be said for them. "They don't know about America or what it is like and they often talk about their homeland," Sullivan added.
A particular focus of First Friends is to address the rather "restrictive writing material situation." Detainees, he lamented, are able to receive packages of writing materials only twice a year. To that end, First Friends puts together packages containing pens, stamped envelopes and paper along with telephone cards. His parish, Sullivan pointed out, donated money for the purchase of telephone cards.
Sullivan had been looking for a productive life in retirement and investigated various charitable programs, but he "didn't connect" until he encountered First Friends. Taking advantage of his banking experience, Sullivan "ran the books" of First Friends before becoming director.
Working with First Friends, Sullivan declared, has given "real meaning" to his Catholic faith.