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Fox Island has ministry to immigrants in detention

About 40 of Fox Island UCC’s 150 members have been learning just how complex issues of immigration are and how important it is to bring a witness of welcome to people in detention or visiting those held at the Northwest Immigration Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma.

detention center vigil

Fox Island's vigils at immigration detention center opens eyes of members to issues. Photo courtesy of Fox Island UCC

There are people there who have roots around the world from Ukraine to Mexico to the Philippines and Pacific Islands.  They are brought to this private detention facility from Oregon, Idaho, Eastern Washington and beyond, as far as Texas.

Some have family who drive several hours to visit them, and some have no family nearby to visit.

Two years ago, Fox Island’s office manager, Anna Mikkelborg, a University of Washington student, was doing an internship at the detention center.  She learned that some of those in detention needed phone cards to make phone calls to family.  The church raised money to donate cards as a Christmas gift.

She also learned that some detainees needed visitors, so some church members were trained to do visitations, said the pastor, Janet Matthews.

“Five learned about immigration laws, procedures and practices in the detention center, guidelines for a good visit, and what boundaries to set,” she said.

Then they learned that some churches were doing “vigils,” setting up outside the center with a table under a canopy, welcoming family and friends as they come to visit, and then spending time with them when their visits are over.

They began this ministry in May 2016, coming one Sunday afternoon a month during visiting hours from 1 to 4 p.m. to provide beverages, snacks, sandwiches, toys and books to serve and feed people in this stressful time.  From eight to 12 go each time.

“We listen to the visitors and pray with them,” said Janet, who has been pastor at Fox Island for seven years.  She also served churches in Ohio, Kansas City and Portland after graduating from Pacific School of Religion in 2001.  She was clinical supervisor and therapist in a mental health agency before that.

“While this ministry does not address the root issue, our policies on immigration, it does provide a friendly action,” she said.  “A couple of our families with youth have been at the gatherings so they can play with and get to know some of the children who are visiting family the center,” she added.

“One woman visiting her brother recently said he was depressed and discouraged, ‘You have no idea what it means to know someone cares.’ People in the church see how a peanut butter sandwich and kind words make a difference,” she said.

The members sit together and talk between the time visitors enter and leave.

Fox Island UCC is doing this ministry through AID NW, a nonprofit organization that assists, increases awareness about and advocates for immigrants in detention in the Pacific Northwest.

AID-NW has provided phone cards so immigrants can hear the voices of family and friends.  They provide visitors for those with no one to visit them.  When immigrants are eligible for release, most are local but some are hundreds of miles from friends and family, AID NW has a Welcome Center and Housing Network to help reunify families.

AID NW began in 2005 after the NWDC began booking immigrants into its new 500-bed facility. Now the NWDC has 1,575 beds.

The beds are in pods. The people pull out beds into the general area to sleep at night and put them away during the day.  Night and day lights are on, Janet said.

Its members include advocacy groups, social service agencies, churches and other faith-based organizations, congressional liaisons, and officials from Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) who meet bimonthly. 

She said the people come from different circumstances.  They may have been picked up because of a minor traffic infraction.  Some were picked up by ICE. Some are seeking asylum and in the process of applying.  Some were charged with a felony for what would be a misdemeanor for a U.S. citizen.

“Few are criminals,” she said.  “The longest detention is seven years, a man from the Philippines.  People there are not citizens and do not have the right to a speedy trial.

“Some grow tired of waiting and ask to be deported,” she said.

The post-detention Welcome Center opened in 2015 in an RV parked near the release gate from 3 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.  Each day, seven to 10 immigrants are released. 

Volunteers in the Welcome Center inform them of services to rebuild their lives in the U.S.  They provide transportation funds, safe housing, emergency food, clothing and referrals, when applicable, to refugee resettlement services.

“The people released can pick up a warm coat and backpack, as well as other clothing and hygiene items

Some of the immigrants are granted asylum and some are deported, Janet said.

“Our members see the need for immigration reform because of face-to-face time to welcome the stranger, to feel they are providing comfort to those who are stressed,” Janet said.

“We have 15 new members in our church, and a number help at the vigils, so the time waiting is an opportunity to get to know other church members better,” she said.

Janet is concerned by the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“In terms of my faith, we are to welcome the strangers.  Jesus said when we give a cup of water to a stranger we give it to Jesus,” she said. 

“We give water in the form of coffee,” Janet said.

For information, call 253-549-2420 or email


Copyright © February 2017 Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ News


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