Over 400 people participated in a Catholic protest outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in New Jersey on Wednesday, calling for an end to the U.S. government’s detention of migrant children and families.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Newark’s archbishop, joined demonstrators outside the city’s Peter Rodino Federal Building, blessing those who signed up to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and leading the crowd in a recitation of the rosary.
About 50 people willing to risk arrest, including some religious sisters and priests, blocked traffic by occupying a public crosswalk, organizers said. Some formed the shape of the cross with their bodies as others recited prayers and sang. They held photos of children who have died in federal custody since 2018 and listened to narratives about the experiences of detained kids.
Tobin pointed to the Bible’s calls to welcome the stranger and care for the prisoner. He called on Catholics to urge their representatives not to use families as “political pawns.”
“As a nation, we must come together for immigration reform which defends the family, protects human dignity, and enshrines the sacredness of life,” Tobin said.
Newark police ultimately issued summonses, or tickets, to six protesters.
Jacqueline Small, a 26-year-old postulant with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, was one of the six. She told HuffPost that while she was lying on the ground reciting the rosary, she meditated on the life of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old from Guatemala who died after being taken into U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody late last year. Small wore a photo of Maquin around her neck.
“I was praying that I’d be able to advocate for her and do the kind of good work she would have done for our country if she had been allowed to stay and allowed to live,” Small said.
Small said she hopes the presence of Catholic sisters at the demonstration will inspire those who share the faith to speak up.
“As Catholics, we’re really called to be a lot like Mary,” she said. “We’re called to bring God into the world and use our own bodies to do it.”
The ICE office in Newark is where undocumented migrants seeking asylum go for periodic check-ins with the agency ― appointments many await with trepidation, fearing they will be deported and separated from their families.
Statewide, ICE contracts with local governments in Essex, Hudson and Bergen counties, according to NJ.com, using county jails to hold its detainees. The federal agency also contracts with a detention facility in Elizabeth owned by a private company.
A wide swath of Catholic groups convened for Wednesday’s protest ― including religious orders, such as the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and advocacy groups, such as Pax Christi USA and the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the country’s largest association of religious sisters, and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which represents about one-third of America’s Catholic priests, offered their support. Interfaith groups, such as Faith in Action, and immigrant advocacy groups, such as Cosecha, were also in attendance.
The protest comes on the heels of a similar Catholic-led action that took place in Washington, D.C., last month. Seventy people were arrested during that protest, including Catholic nuns, priests and lay advocates.
Several of the activists who attended the D.C. event were from New York and New Jersey, and wanted to highlight how ICE operates in their region, organizers said.
The day of action started with a meeting at St. Mary’s Church in Newark, a parish that was the target of anti-immigrant violence almost exactly 165 years ago. On Sept. 5, 1854, a nativist mob looted and nearly destroyed the church, which served the area’s German-speaking Catholic immigrants.
Rev. Dennis Berry, director of the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling, recounted America’s long history of anti-Catholic sentiment and how that affected the lives of German, Irish and Italian immigrants decades ago. He reminded attendees about the parable of the Good Samaritan ― a story Jesus told his followers to encourage them to care for strangers in need.
“If we look at each other as ‘them,’ the other, we miss the good news,” Berry said. “But if we look at the other as a brother, a sister, a beloved son or daughter of the Father, as a person with dignity and rights and hopes and dreams and sorrows like all of us, then we begin to experience the coming of the kingdom of God, we become agents of that holy kingdom as we move forward.”
After the meeting, the protesters filed out of the building to the sound of church bells. They marched to the nearby Federal Building, led by an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus as a child. The icon, created by the artist Kelly Latimore, depicts a Latin American mother and child draped in a mylar blanket and penned in by a chain-link fence.
At the Federal Building, the protesters heard speeches from Catholic leaders and immigration activists. A woman whose daughter was meeting with ICE officials during the protest shared her story and asked for prayers for her family.
This level of activism is nothing new for New Jersey’s Catholics ― in fact, they have been involved in efforts to stop immigrant detention for over 20 years. The movement started in 1997 when a group of Catholics with Jesuit Refugee Services partnered with volunteers from the Archdiocese of Newark to start weekly English lessons and Bible studies at the Elizabeth Detention Center.
The organization that grew out of that effort, First Friends of NJ and NY, acts as a helpline for detainees ― linking them to family members and legal services. Unlike in criminal cases, the government is not required to secure a lawyer for detained migrants who can’t afford one.
First Friends has held an Ash Wednesday vigil outside the Elizabeth Detention Center for two decades. About 10 years ago, Pax Christi New Jersey and other faith-based groups started organizing a companion event, walking from Liberty State Park, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty, all the way to the Elizabeth detention center on Ash Wednesday.
Tobin’s presence at the immigration protest is also nothing new ― the cardinal has attended numerous immigration protests in the past. Last year, he joined protesters completing a “Jericho Walk” in solidarity with immigrants around Federal headquarters in Newark.
Kathy O’Leary, a New Jersey region coordinator for Pax Christi USA who attended the protest, said it’s important to acknowledge that dehumanizing policies towards migrants existed before President Donald Trump and also occurred when Democrats were in control of the White House. She pointed out that Democratic politicians in New Jersey have contracted with ICE to put detainees in county jails, receiving funding for parks and zoos in exchange.
The difference under Trump’s administration is that that there is no longer a pretense of trying to “do the right thing” by these migrants, O’Leary said.
Catholic immigration activists in her state have known for a long time that detention is meant to rob asylum seekers of hope, O’Leary said.
“What we have said all along is that these [detention policies] are intentionally cruel,” she said. “There is no room for mercy. It’s sad that it took this level of rhetoric for people to realize that.”
A more just alternative would be to allow migrants to work on their immigration cases from outside of detention, O’Leary said. The vast majority of migrant families, especially those who have legal representation, attend their immigration court hearings.
O’Leary said it’s heartening to see Catholics organizing on a national level around immigration issues. Jesus and Mary were migrants, she said, which means standing in solidarity with migrant families is an essential part of what it means to be Catholic.
“We’re called to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet, particularly people suffering hardship,” O’Leary said. “The people who are coming here, fleeing desperate conditions, are people we’re supposed to look at and see as children of God.”
Watch a livestream of the protest below.