When undocumented immigrants move through government-run detention centers in the U.S., it can take months before they find out if they’ll be deported or allowed to stay in the country.
During this long wait, many become frustrated. And some turn to religion.
It’s the job of the in-house chaplain to help connect detainees to religious services.
Keith Henderson, chaplain at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., says, “I love it. I love the job,” partly, he says, because he likes challenges.
This facility holds nearly 1,600 people who face deportation. Henderson’s job is to arrange worship services that match their religions and languages.
The center currently offers services for eight different religions.
“We have Chinese. Korean. We have Spanish. We have English and we have Russian all going on at the same time, in one service,” he says.
More than 400,000 undocumented immigrants enter government-run detention centers every year around the U.S.
Immigration officials say every detention facility has a chaplain like Henderson on staff. They help make sure religious needs get met — from Kosher meals to Catholic Mass, to Muslim and Sikh prayer services.
Here, Henderson says about half the detainees take part in the worship services. And it can make a big difference.
“Some guys come, you know, and you watch them, they sit in the back and then after time they start really participating. So it’s a transformation,” he says.
After the chaplaincy program started here in 2008, he says, the staff noticed a distinct change across the whole facility.
“The statistical — you know — violence and everything else just dropped,” he says.
About 75 percent of detainees in this facility come from Mexico and Central America. But the rest are from everywhere else.
That diversity keeps Henderson on his toes. On a given day, he might get a detainee who’s Jewish or Greek Orthodox, or who only speaks Japanese. So he works with a lot of interpreters and outside volunteer groups who bring all these religious services into the detention center.
The Sikh prayer service, for example, is held here every Saturday.
About 70 men in blue and orange jumpsuits are gathered in a large cafeteria, sitting together on flannel blankets. They’re almost all from Punjab, India. Bandanas cover their heads. Dressed in business clothes, Balwant Aulck, leads the group.
Aulck, from the Sikh Center of Seattle, says the chaplain called the center a few years ago, asking for books for the Punjabi detainees.
“I said, ‘Well, we can do even more, you know.’ And that’s how it started,” he says.
Different volunteers from the Sikh Center come here every weekend to lead a prayer service that lasts about 20 minutes.
“Once they do prayer, then it kind of brings them calmness. Frustration goes out,” Aulck says.
Afterward, a few men gather around Aulck. Some talk about their families or their court case.
“I just try to make sure they’re settled,” Aulck says. “What that means is, they accept the consequences.”
An official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allowed NPR to interview a few detainees, but not use anyone’s name.
One man, who’s lived in the U.S. for 22 years, says this group service reinforces his faith and helps him cope with some frustrations of daily life here.
“Me, and I have another guy — he’s my celly — we doing every day 6 o’clock in the cell,” he says. “We sit down there in the blanket and we pray every day. But here, when you come here, they make a more better strength like you go in the church, you know.”
He says many guys here, they all pray for the same thing.
“God, just let us go from here. Just give us one chance to go there and we can be better person,” he says.
And the prayers lift them out of this place — If only for a few brief moments.
“When we pray, we feel like we go home, you know?” he says.