The truth about detention

The truth about detention

NCJW speaker to discuss plight of asylum-seekers

Sally Pillay feels the United States is missing the “bigger picture” when it comes to the treatment of asylum-seekers.
Sally Pillay feels the United States is missing the “bigger picture” when it comes to the treatment of asylum-seekers.

There is no doubt that fleeing persecution is traumatic. Being placed in detention in the country that you hoped would save you — in this case, the United States — increases that trauma immeasurably. And, Sally Pillay says, the idea of mandatory detention for asylum seekers is not only deplorable, but in strictly economic terms, it is not cost-effective.

On December 15, Ms. Pillay, who lives in Hackensack and is the director of First Friends of NJ & NY, will speak about this issue at a Lunch and Learn program of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women.

According to Ms. Pillay, detention, which “has a huge traumatizing effect,” is a “full-profit business for the companies that take on the detaining. There’s no accountability, so human rights violations occur. There are 2,200 (men and women) detained in New Jersey at any given time. In the U.S., there are 34,000 on a given day.”

While the government has handed over the job to private companies, Ms. Pillay said, there are cheaper and more humane ways of implementing the country’s policy of mandatory detention.

“Cost-effective alternatives include releasing people on bond, ankle bracelets, or community supported” enforcement programs, she said. The problem is that we miss the “bigger picture. Seeking refuge is not illegal. The United States supports the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and has agreed to give refuge to people fleeing persecution. By detaining refugees, we turn our backs on what the United States stands for.”

“Why is this such a huge issue?” she continued. “It’s a money-making business, with $2 billion allocated for immigrant detention. They don’t look for cost-effective alternatives. We need to get people to think about this. It’s not about undocumented [aliens] or illegals. It’s about people in need.”

Ms. Pillay said her organization, founded some 13 years ago, “upholds the inherent dignity and humanity of detained immigrants and asylum seekers, through volunteer visitation, resettlement assistance, and advocacy.” She has been associated with the group since 2008.

When she came to the United States from South Africa, having been “part of the process” that felled apartheid, “I realized that my calling was social justice. When I came to finish my studies here and went to grad school, I wanted to do something in international community development… related to social work and human rights.”

Becoming involved with First Friends — which originally was associated with the Jesuits but now is an independent nonprofit organization — “I was very shocked to find asylum-seekers in detention and shocked by the conditions there.” She knew, she said, that her work would focus on this group.

Leaving the organization for a while to become certified in geriatrics, Ms. Pillay went on to do some work in that field. But, she said, she was drawn back to First Friends, this time as a social worker, becoming increasingly involved in its work. Ultimately, she was named its director.

The goal, at first, was for organization members to be a “first friend to an asylum seeker, ending the isolation, providing support, and giving them hope and compassion.” The role of the group, though, has both changed and increased. Now, First Friends advocates for rights in detention as well as for immigration reform. It tackles a wide range of issues, Ms. Pillay said, reaching out to both local legislators and policy makers in Washington, D.C.

“Twice a year we hold vigils, during the Columbus Day weekend and on Ash Wednesday,” she said. “They’re nonviolent demonstrations outside detention facilities calling for awareness of immigration issues. We also collect stamps, stationery, and money for phone cards to link (detainees) to the outside.”

The group is active with five detention facilities: the Bergen County Jail, the Hudson County Detention Center, the Elizabeth Detention Center, Delaney Hall in Newark, and the Essex County Correctional Facility. Originally based in Elizabeth, it now is headquartered in Hudson County.

“We have toll-free lines if individuals need us,” Ms. Pillay said. “We also have a pen-pal program and try to find host families for post-release. We work with different housing entities, to transition (detainees) to self-sufficiency.”

Ms. Pillay, who earned a masters degree in social work specializing in international community development, focusing in human rights and social justice, at Monmouth University, serves on the board of the Bergen County Sanctuary Committee, a coalition of religious and humanist communities, human rights organizations, and other groups and individuals in the greater New York City and New Jersey area. The committee serves as a sponsor organization for asylum seekers released from detention and provides humanitarian support and advocacy services.

Right now, about 90 percent of detained immigrants are of Hispanic origin “from Central American countries, due to the refugee crisis caused by gangs,” Ms. Pillay said. “There are a lot from Africa, mostly from Nigeria, Ghana, and Burkina Faso; and some from the Middle East, including Pakistan and Syria. It changes. There’s also a fair amount from Bangladesh.” The time spent in detention varies from case to case, although, said Pillay, “on average it is six months to a year to indefinitely.” Detainees include both men and women, 18 and older.

Ms. Pillay hopes that more people will go to her organization’s website,, to learn more about this issue. She noted that the group, which is self-supported, needs both financial contributions and volunteers.

Seeking political asylum

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