WOODSTOCK – Emilia Perez had been trying to postpone her court date because she was scared.
“I’ve been here all my life,” said Perez, a 34-year-old mother of three. “If I get off the plane, where am I going to go? Should I go right? Left?”
Perez sat in the tiny library with a small group of other women wearing identical orange jumpsuits, “McHenry County Jail” emblazoned on their backs.
“I don’t know anybody in Mexico,” she said, having been in the United States since she was 6 months old.
Perez said she was in the country legally as a permanent resident, but had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for old charges of retail theft and drug possession.
She has been clean since 2005, Perez said, but a custody dispute over one of her children led her to turn herself in.
In her library group, there was no one there to judge her for her past transgressions. Instead, she was added to a prayer list and asked whether someone could contact her family for her.
“It helps,” Perez said. “It’s like a stress reliever to have somebody who understands.”
Once a week, ministers of all faiths gather at the McHenry County Jail, which houses ICE detainees. Sisters JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy fought for years to provide the detainees pastoral support.
“It’s not counseling; it’s pastoral support,” Persch said. “We listen to them, they can tell us their story, they cry. They ask for prayers for themselves and their family or their judge or their lawyer or the people in the jail.”
The sisters used to run Su Casa, a house for Central American refugees who survived torture and were seeking political asylum.
In 2007, they began going to Broadview Detention Center in Chicago, praying the rosary outside every Friday morning. In the beginning, sometimes it was just the two of them – rain or show, minus-20-degree weather – but the crowd since has swelled.
There they saw families being ripped apart.
“... It was a very traumatic moment, especially for the people who were inside and are now being placed on a bus, being taken to an airport, removed from their families and what they considered their country,” Persch said.
Persch and Murphy asked to go inside to provide pastoral support, but were told they couldn’t.
“It took years and getting a bill passed in Illinois to allow pastoral workers to come in here,” Persch said.
Although Murphy and Persch are Roman Catholic, the team of religious leaders headed to the jail every week is interfaith, with a rabbi coming most weeks, as well as representatives from Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian and several other faiths.
That people of all faiths and religions and of different races are coming together is what makes their work rich, Murphy said.
“Stemming from our community, we have a strong challenge to stand in solidarity with our immigrant sisters and brothers,” Persch said.
They are disheartened by the bill signed into law in Arizona that supporters said would give police more power to deal with illegal immigration. It requires police to question people about their immigration status – including asking for identification – if they suspect someone is in the country illegally.
The federal government is challenging the legislation, but it’s sparked fears among legal immigrants and U.S. citizens that they’ll be hassled by police just because they look Hispanic.
Murphy said there needed to be an understanding of what happens when someone is deported and why that person came to the United States in the first place.
No one in their right mind, she said, would voluntarily cross the Arizona desert and risk his life in order to send money back home.
“Their children haven’t got a chance in the countries that they’re living in,” Murphy said. “Poverty drives people do to desperate things. Desperate people do desperate things.”
Murphy recalls a T-shirt she has that says “Illegal immigrants of the Bible” and has a picture of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt.
“We’ve gotten to the moon and we’ve done a lot of things,” she said. “I think that there is some way that we can be a little more compassionate in a very hard system where we are tearing people and families apart.”
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After months of being detained, Emilia Perez needn’t have been so worried. On Nov. 1, an immigration judge gave her relief from being deported.