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A Haunting Desert Experience

8th Day Center for Justice staff and assembly members at the Eloy Detention Center to open the SOAWatch Nogales Convergence weekend of Oct. 7-10, including (from left) Mary Kay Flanigan, a family member of a detainee, Liz Deligio, Sister Kathleen Desautels, Patricia Schlosser and Arlene Ashack.

8th Day Center for Justice staff and assembly members at the Eloy Detention Center to open the SOAWatch Nogales Convergence weekend of Oct. 7-10, including (from left) Mary Kay Flanigan, a family member of a detainee, Liz Deligio, Sister Kathleen Desautels, Patricia Schlosser and Arlene Ashack.

Twenty years of attending the SOAWatch events at the gates of Ft. Benning, Ga., one always needed to prepare for either cold or rainy days. Not so this year. The Arizona border heat made real the suffering and dangers so many migrants experience on their long walk of hope to freedom too often denied.

The SOAWatch moved its yearly vigil from the gates of Ft. Benning to the militarized United States/Mexico border of Nogales, Ariz. The change of the location was the Movement’s desire to broaden the issue of its long-held concern against United States militarization both at home and abroad.

Friday evening of the weekend long events, hundreds of migrants, students, religious community members, veterans and human rights activists gathered near the Eloy Detention Center. Eloy in Pinella County, Ariz., is set in the middle of the desert between Phoenix and Tucson – hundreds of miles from the closest town.

Undeterred by the 90-plus degree heat and desert dust, people arrived early and stood for hours in front of a truck that was turned into the make-shift stage where we listened to migrants and their allies who spoke of the connection between U.S. militarization in Latin America and forced migration to the United States. Family members of those “detained” in the for-profit Corporate Correction of America/CCA detention center across the highway described the horrors of living there.

Berta Avila, a woman who was detained while pregnant, denied medical care, and who lost her child in detention, spoke saying through tears, “To those of you who don’t vote, who don’t change these laws, you are allowing children to die here inside places like Eloy.”

The Eloy facility, built in 1994, holds close to 1,600 inmates, both men and women. A detainee can be held for as short a time as two months, to the longest thus far of nine-and-a-half years. The Eloy Center has been cited by ICE’s own Internal Office of Detention Oversight for its lack of medical care, as some 14 detainees have died between 2003 and mid-2016, including five suicides.

As the sun set, the crowd processed along the highway closer to the detention center with lit candles singing, chanting and drumming in a show of solidarity. To the surprise of all gathered, the inmates had organized on the inside. They greeted those of us gathered on the outside by waving pieces of cloth in the windows and turning the lights in their cells on and off to let us know they heard us.

The next day, a family member of one of the Eloy detainees learned that those detainees who participated in this action of solidarity were put in solitary confinement. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Their spirits were lifted knowing there are friends working for their release.”

The somber two-and-a-half hour drive back to Nogales that evening left us asking ourselves what have we become as a nation to allow such harsh immigration policies? The question still haunts me.

My hope is that the memories of the weekend will renew my own energies to remember Mother Theodore’s words – “We’re not called to do all the good there is, only that which we can.”

Again, I ask myself our Chapter questions – What can I/we start doing? What can I/we continue to do with renewed intention? What can I/we stop doing? May it be so.

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Sister Kathleen Desautels

Sister Kathleen served as the Sisters of Providence representative to 8th Day Center for Justice, a coalition of Catholic religious congregations committed to act as a critical alternative voice to oppressive systems and to work actively to change those systems. She currently volunteers in Chicago, Illinois.

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3 Comments

  1. Eileen Hammersmith on October 29, 2016 at 11:47 am

    Hi Sister Kathleen, I always like reading your posts. I wish you were running for president!! Maybe I will print this out and send it to my Uncle Mike. He likes to criticize illegal immigrants from the confines of his fancy digs in Oak Brooks. It drives me crazy that any of my relatives are against immigrants because they Irish were not welcome when they started coming either. Sorry, I would like to come to hear the Code Pink speaker Monday, but my kids want me to be home for Halloween. I hope to get to one of your events soon. Thanks

  2. Rita Clare Gerardot, on October 30, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Kak, thanks for being there at the border and telling us of your actions and the response from those who are held as prisoners. How sad to hear of the harsh conditions under which these good people are held and the length of time that many have been there and, even worse, the number of those who have died there.

    I’m sure your groups’ protesting lifted the spirits of all the confined.

    In paeace,
    Rita Clare

  3. Rita Clare Gerardot, on October 30, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Kak, thanks for being there at the border and your sharing with us the actions taken by your group and the response from those who are held as prisoners. How sad to hear of the harsh conditions under which these good people are held and the length of time that many have been there resulting in the death of a number of these good people .

    I’m sure your groups’ protesting lifted the spirits of all the incarcerated.

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