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Over 100 attendees fill information session on supporting immigrants and asylum seekers

The Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino
Paulos, an asylum seeker supported by First Friends, speaks of his experience to the attendees of an information session hosted by St. George's in Maplewood. CYNTHIA BLACK PHOTO

When St. George’s in Maplewood, where I serve as Deacon, hosted an information session on supporting detained immigrants and asylum seekers, I hoped for 10 to 20 attendees. Then, over 80 people sent RSVPs. When the workshop took place the evening of February 7, more than 100 people attended. St. Georgians were joined by members of other churches in the diocese as well as neighbors from the wider community. Many said their attendance was prompted by President Trump's Executive Order restricting immigrants and refugees.

Board members, staff and volunteers from First Friends of NJ and NY facilitated the information session. First Friends is a non-profit organization dedicated to upholding the inherent dignity and humanity of detained immigrants and asylum seekers and providing compassion and hope through volunteer visitation, resettlement assistance and advocacy. First Friends serves the four ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) Detention Centers in New Jersey which hold over 2,200 detainees awaiting deportation or seeking asylum. They provided information about the ICE, a law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security; the over 200 detention centers operated in the US (most privately run by for-profit companies); the methods by which immigrants and asylum seekers are found and detained; and most importantly, about the various opportunities that exist to help support and advocate for the treatment of and advocacy for the detainees.

The evening was divided into two sections. At the first section, I addressed the nature of immigration detention and the difficult and often haphazard process to be granted status to legally remain in the US. Then First Friends Board Members Karen Long and Yarrow Willman-Cole focused on the many volunteer opportunities available through First Friends, including fundraising, working on various committees, helping in the First Friends office, advocacy and becoming a volunteer visitor to detainees in the local centers. The Rev. Bernie Poppe, Rector of St. George’s, who has himself served as a host for released detainees and asylum seekers, described how to be a host and offer accommodation for both for short-term and longer-term arrangements. Finally Paulos, a former detainee and asylum seeker, spoke of the importance to him of First Friends, the significance of  the time spent with his visitor, and the support he received after he was released from the Elizabeth Detention Center in July 2016.

Afterwards, close to 50 individuals stayed for the second section of the evening, a volunteer visitor training session led by Rosa Santana, First Friends’ Volunteer Coordinator and Lorna Henkel, First Friends Board President. They explained the purpose of a visit, the rules and protocols of each of the facilities, and how to ensure that each visit is a special and meaningful encounter for both the detainee and the volunteer. Santana and Henkel mentioned that there is a special bond between the volunteer visitor and the detainee and that both receive so much from each visit in fellowship and learning each other’s stories. The training session closed with a question and answer period during which attendees posed many thoughtful and passionate questions.

Many attendees said they saw this information session as an opportunity to become more informed about the challenges facing immigrants in the current political climate and to explore opportunities to “network” and begin to collaborate with other groups seeking out similar social justice issues.

The First Friends team was gratified with the attendance and outcome of the information and training sessions.  There were requests for additional information and training sessions, and First Friends is in the process of seeking out venues for sessions in the coming months.  Next steps also include reaching out to those who attended the training portion, to partner them with a visitor.  First Friends currently visits approximately 70 detainees at the four New Jersey Detention Centers, and there is a list of over 100 detainees waiting to receive visitors.

First Friends would be more than happy to work with other advocacy groups and faith-based organizations to schedule a similar or customized session upon request. For more information about First Friends or how you or parish can become involved, visit or contact me at