Like most people in California, Luis is sheltering in place. He whiles away the hours listening to music on a Spanish-language radio station and scrolling through websites on an old, borrowed cell phone. But instead of being at home, the Honduran immigrant is spending his days on the ground floor of a pandemic-shuttered shul, at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.
At 63, Luis, who asked that only his first name be used, has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. He was recently released from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center near Bakersfield, where he had been incarcerated for six months. He’s been in quarantine at Kehilla since May 1.
Every day or two, a masked volunteer from the synagogue’s Immigration Committee delivers home-cooked meals and groceries. Occasionally, Luis hears the sounds of a custodian cleaning somewhere in the synagogue. But mostly he’s alone in the empty building, happy for the quiet and tranquility.
“It’s peaceful at the temple,” he said in Spanish through a synagogue volunteer acting as an interpreter. “When I first got out, I couldn’t sleep; I was so excited and emotional. Even now, I can’t believe I’m free.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, conditions have been especially dire for immigrants in ICE detention facilities, long criticized for overcrowding and inadequate sanitation. On May 7, a 57-year-old Salvadoran man became the first person held at a U.S. ICE detention facility to die of COVID-19. At least 943 immigrants in detention across 20 states have tested positive for the virus, according to ICE, and immigration activists believe it’s only a matter of time until a major outbreak threatens more lives.
Luis, who is homeless, was incarcerated in October after ICE agents found him sleeping in his car in a Target parking lot. He first heard about the coronavirus pandemic from the Spanish-language television news at the detention center. “We were terrified one person would get it and then we all would get it and we would die,” he said.
In a pandemic, detention centers are a public health official’s worst nightmare; 6-foot social distancing is virtually impossible. At the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility where Luis was incarcerated, the detained men and women live in large dormitories with bunk beds spaced 2 to 3 feet apart, according to recent news reports. As many as 100 people live in a single block and hundreds eat together in a common dining hall.
In April, as reports of the unsanitary conditions there leaked out, protesters gathered outside the detention facility. When Luis went out to the recreation yard, he could hear people outside the facility yelling, “Freedom.” The detainees yelled back in response and assembled in the shape of a heart as a drone flew over them recording the scene.
People incarcerated at the center organized a hunger strike and demanded that the facility make hygiene supplies like soap and masks more available. Luis participated in the hunger strike for a day and a half but finally had to quit because he was on medication that had to be taken with food.
Now, perhaps in response to the protests and legal efforts to free those who are detained, ICE is releasing a trickle of people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Because of his age and several chronic medical conditions, Luis was approved for release, but he needed a place where he could quarantine for at least 14 days.
Julie Litwin, chair of Kehilla’s Immigration Committee, heard about Luis’ plight and approached the Kehilla leadership. The synagogue was ready; it had recently converted a storage room into a guest suite with a private bathroom with the intention of helping immigrants in need.
“This is a moment in time when it’s possible to do something relatively simple to potentially save lives,” said Litwin. “If a detained person has an address to go to and a place to self-quarantine for a short period of time, it increases the chance that they may be released from a dangerous situation, where they could potentially die if there is a COVID-19 outbreak.”
Litwin, 64, has been defending the dignity of immigrants for most of her life, first as a nurse-midwife working with farmworker families on the Central Coast, later at a county hospital, and now as an activist.
“As a Jewish person this work is very important to me because of our history and culture and stories; we have been immigrants and migrants back to biblical times,” she said. “Our safety and our lives and the continuation of our people wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t people who were kind to us. That’s something dear to my heart.”
Kehilla has a long history of supporting immigrants. In 1985 the synagogue declared itself a Sanctuary Congregation and became an active member of the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a network of faith communities engaged in helping refugees escape death squads in El Salvador. Ever since, the congregation has championed the rights of immigrants. In recent years several members have opened their homes to refugees and asylum seekers and others have served on accompaniment teams supporting them.
“We’re doing this because we have to,” said Kehilla Executive Director Michael Saxe-Taller. “Our values call us to do it. We as a congregation have taken a very strong stand in support of immigrants and refugees. When this request came, it was clear what’s happening is a travesty of justice and if we had the opportunity to do something about it, we should.”
A group of immigrant advocates is working to find Luis a more permanent home in the Sacramento area, where his former employer at a Jack in the Box restaurant has agreed to give him back his old job — this time with more hours so he can afford to pay rent. He will remain on electronic monitoring with ICE, a GPS tracking device buckled around his ankle, while he continues to fight his immigration case.
Luis, who had never heard of Judaism before coming to Kehilla, said he hopes to visit a synagogue once he’s settled in to his new home.
“Frankly I have no idea of what Judaism is,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything about it. I don’t know what they preach or what this religion is about, but I can tell you the way I’ve been received here says a lot. I’m so grateful and happy.”