On the morning of Tuesday, September 4, approximately five hundred people gathered in St. Mary’s Abbey Church in downtown Newark, New Jersey. Students, professors, and activists crammed together alongside priests, nuns, and a bishop, filling the pews and spilling into the narthex and the choir loft above. They met for prayer and protest for the sake of ending, as their public statement puts it, “the inhumane treatment of migrants as well as…both child and family detention.”
The event took place a few weeks after the Trump administration announced that it would end the legal agreement that placed limits on the amount of time migrants could be held in detention. While migrant detention has been an issue since the Obama administration, it is the detention of minors, separated from their families, that has raised the issue to national consciousness. According to recent estimates, around two hundred children remain under detention today. That number is down from 2,700 last May, but the children are still being held in squalid conditions—“in cold cells without proper clothing or adequate food,” as one lawmaker put it.
As I pushed my way into the packed, hundred-year-old red-brick church, I saw three stacks of glossy posters sitting on a table, freely available to all participants. The first was a blue sign that read, “Stop the Inhumanity!” The second was a black-and-white icon of the Holy Mother and Child behind a chainlink fence; I later learned that this icon is known as the “Protectress of the Oppressed,” written by artist Kelly Latimore. But it was the third image that got to me: an image of a smiling, sixteen-year-old Central American boy, his name and age in black letters at the bottom. I flipped through the stack: more faces and names of children who had crossed the desert, some as young as five.
From the heights of the choir loft I looked down at the lectern, where various speakers addressed the crowd. Fr. Dennis Barry of the New Jersey Shrine of St. Joseph tried to capture the moral claim at the heart of the event: “How we look at one another affects what we do.” Almost everything about the gathering—down to those glossy images of refugee children—was intended to make sure that certain human beings are not hidden from view, either by the legal bureaucracy in charge of handling migrant and refugee cases, or by the abstract policy discourse that has the power to determine their fate, or by the walls of a detention center.
Several speakers offered prayers and reflections, after which the group processed to the Peter Rodino Federal Building on Broad Street a few blocks away, which houses the local headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “Processed” is a better word than “marched” because the event had the feeling of a religious pilgrimage—of the feast day of a saint in a small town in Italy or South America. Many of those processing were no doubt thinking and talking about politics and policies, but they all walked behind an elevated icon of the Virgin Mary—a large wooden frame containing the Madonna and Child, with metal fencing for a backdrop, trimmed with ribbons bearing written prayers and petitions. It was the same Protectress of the Oppressed I had seen before.
Two coalitions came together to organize the event. The recently formed D.C. Catholic Coalition, which had already organized a protest in the nation’s capital earlier this summer, focuses on child detention. The older coalition of New Jersey–based activist groups, on the other hand, has been protesting the detention of immigrants and asylum seekers for more than two decades. This coalition includes Pax Christi, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Haiti Solidarity Network, and First Friends (which focuses on the detention of immigrants and asylum seekers). Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, also played an important role. He marched with the protestors and made the final speech of the day, in front of the federal building. Most media reports of the event led with an account of his speech: he made the protest more visible to the average non-activist Catholic.