On this blog, I try to share both my thoughts and those of others standing for welcome at LIRS and nationwide. Today, I’d like to introduce an interview by Luke Telander, Program Associate for Outreach at LIRS, with Sean Kelly, Program Associate at Jesuit Refugee Service, USA (JRS/USA)
Our immigration detention system tears apart families and dehumanizes immigrants, often denying them basic human rights. Solitary confinement leaves many detainees feeling utterly helpless and alone. These detainees’ own family members may even be afraid to visit the detention center due to their own status. That’s why immigration detention visitation programs are so important. By showing compassion and accompanying detained people for a short while, volunteers are able to affirm the human dignity of those detained and show them that they are not forgotten.
For many people and organizations, however, it might seem daunting to first get involved. That’s why Sean Kelly of JRS/USA has teamed up with CIVIC (Community Initiatives to Visit Immigrants in Confinement) to create two videos to help organizations recruit volunteers, and to help volunteers learn how to listen with compassion and respect. We were lucky enough to talk with Sean through an email interview. Here are his thoughts:
Luke Telander (LT): What personal experiences led you to using video to spread the word about immigration detention and visitation programs?
Sean Kelly (SK): Overall, I have noticed over the last year that listening skills are the hardest topic for visitation groups to train their volunteers. I think that everyone understands the importance of listening skills, but not all groups, especially those just starting out, know how to articulate guidelines, practical tips, or conduct useful role-playing exercises for volunteers.
In my personal life, I’m involved with the D.C. Detention Visitation Network. When we conducted our first volunteer orientation, we decided to have a session about listening skills. We hoped to bring in a licensed counselor to give a short presentation and lead an exercise on listening. Unfortunately, the person we wanted could not attend the orientation, so we had one of our group’s leaders conduct the session instead. That arrangement worked well enough, but I felt that it could have been better if we had been able to get the counselor.
A few months after that experience, I was speaking with my boss here at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA about detention visitation. Based on his experience with it over the years with JRS/USA, he stressed the importance of volunteers understanding listening and being able to practice it through role-playing in a training session. For me, the conversation confirmed my previous experience. Eventually, that conversation with my boss was the catalyst for the videos that JRS/USA and CIVIC created.
LT: For you, what’s the main purpose of detention visitation?
SK: From my point of view, it is accompaniment, which is also one of the basic tenets of our mission at JRS/USA. Unfortunately, visitor volunteers are limited in their ability to change the situation for people in detention. The ultimate outcome for most will be deportation. By accompanying people in detention, we recognize their inherent human dignity and let them know that they are not forgotten in the middle of a very traumatizing time in their lives.
LT: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience as a visitation volunteer?
SK: My experience is more limited than I would like. Outside of my work with JRS/USA, I’ve been very involved with the D.C. visitation group. We held a volunteer orientation last September. Unfortunately, our strategy to find people in detention through lawyer referrals did not work. So I took the lead on submitting a tour request for a detention facility near D.C. I’ve been in regular communication with the ICE field office and hope to have a tour scheduled soon for the group’s leadership.
LT: If you could change one thing about our immigration detention system, what would it be?
SK: Well, there are a lot of things I would like to change about immigration detention. If I had to choose one thing, I would want fewer people held in detention. I personally think there are far more people held in immigration detention than necessary. The unnecessary detention of so many people is not a prudent use of government resources in terms of time, money, facilities, and people. It also puts life on hold for those people in detention which has disastrous consequences for family members that depend on them.
LT: One of the videos you produced is on how to be a good listener. How do you become a good listener, and why is it important in visitation?
SK: I think that even for people with a natural ability and presence to listen well, it is still a developed skill, especially in the context of immigration detention. I think that even if volunteers receive training with tips on good listening and some role-playing, they will hone those skills and their approach through visiting people in detention.
Good listening skills are extremely important for visitation because listening is at the heart of what a visitor does. Ultimately, a visitor provides accompaniment and the listening presence one offers to the person in detention is much more important than the content or quantity of the conversation.
LT: What is the number one piece of advice your video has for organizations overseeing visitation programs?
SK: For the organizations overseeing visitation, the leaders need to understand the importance of volunteer screening because it protects the integrity of the organization. Whether the procedures are developed by the visitation group or required by the facility, I think all groups should have volunteers complete a formal application, orientation, and background check. The application should ask for education, experience, and the volunteer’s motivation for visiting people in detention. The orientation provides the opportunity to meet with volunteers and impart practical information about detention, the facility, volunteer conduct, and visiting. The visitation group leadership needs to have a sense of the people they are sending to visit the people in detention because the volunteers are developing relationships with people who are vulnerable and powerless.
LT: What’s next for you?
SK: I hope to collaborate more with CIVIC. I think there is a strong commonality between CIVIC’s mission to end isolation of people in U.S. immigration detention and the JRS mission to accompany, serve and advocate for the forcibly displaced – which for us in the U.S. includes people in detention. CIVIC leadership’s on detention visitation is vital to the emerging visitation movement and that is something that I want to continue to support as much as possible.