Rev. Billy Takes on Immigrant Detention Centers 

Page 4 of 5

In its 2007 Annual Report, The GEO Group, a private corporation that owns and operates correction facilities, and is contracted to manage five of I.C.E.’s, wrote: “The private correctional industry in the United States is experiencing the largest business demand in its history.” In 2008, the company reported nearly $60 million in profits, an almost 40 percent increase from the year before. The Corrections Corporation of America (C.C.A.), whose website boasts that it’s the largest privately owned prison-management company in the country, operates six I.C.E. facilities. It posted profits of more than $150 million in 2008, an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year. The United States was in a recession during 2008.

A Bleak Place

click to enlarge RevBilly-ElizNJ_BrennanCava.jpg
After the brisk rally at Varick Street, Billy and his entourage pack into rented white vans and drive to 625 Evans Street in Elizabeth, N.J. — the Bergen County jail Ravi Ragbir had spoken about, a C.C.A.-managed I.C.E. detention center. The vans zip through Jersey’s industrial wastelands, past parking lots, freight yards, intersecting highways, warehouses, Newark Airport. It’s a bleak road to a bleak place.

The vans pull into a lot for “employees and visitors,” amid a landscape of barbed wire fences and low-lying, faded-yellow brick buildings. “I’m creeped out,” Billy says, stepping out of a van. Crushed water bottles and McDonald’s bags litter the cracked asphalt. Several yards away, a line of Shop Rite and Chiquita Banana trucks idle behind a chain-link fence.

The choir walks across the road and stands on a sidewalk of sorts, dirt filled in with tiny white rocks, in front of a faceless building — the detention center. The choir starts its song again. We dance the day you are free. No security arrives. “We know you shouldn’t be here. This is the United States of America!” Billy shouts through his megaphone. “We are all immigrants here! This is an immigrant nation!” Shop Rite trucks load and drive off. “This is a moral embarrassment here!” he continues. He pauses to allow the deafening rumble of a launching plane to pass. “It ought to be a moral embarrassment!”

As visitors pass, curious enough to look but not to stop, Billy sermonizes passionately about the injustices occurring behind the walls in front of which he stands. Softly, a choir member spontaneously begins the gospel standard “Amen.” More of the choir join in; their volume rises gradually, culminating in a full-throated sing-a-long as the choir parades back to the parking lot. They step through a puddle of melted snow. “Walk on water,” one says.

‘Our Final Act of Connection is Electrical Connection’
Back in the parking lot, the group loiters. A man and a woman with three well-dressed children, none of which looked older than 12, walk into the center. “There goes a family,” Billy says, “visiting on the weekends.” A young woman named Sadaf stands in the lot with her parents. She tells some choristers that she just visited a family-friend inside; he had held up his hand, trying to touch Sadaf through the glass that separated them. “It breaks my heart,” she says.

She and her parents walk a few steps to their car, next to which stands a woman slightly older than Sadaf. She and the mother embrace tightly for much longer than people usually hug. The woman cries. Billy walks over and embraces them.

Sadaf’s family’s car battery is dead. Several choir members, along with the reverend, collect to help the family push it out of the space, so that Billy’s entourage can give it a boost. Billy says, “Our final act of connection…”

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