This week I visited a jail for the first time in my life. A woman who was in our shelter attempted to cross the border again and was sentenced to a month in jail for illegal reentry. When her sister told me that she was incarcerated in Nogales, Arizona I decided to visit her on my day off.
When I entered the jail to speak with her via the video conference system (most US jails are phasing out in-person visits) I physically felt her despair at being behind bars. She was facing a month of following strict orders while being confined to an enclosed area. With good reason many migrants who are accustomed to life in the open air, small towns, or in the fields fear and dread the prospect of long jail sentences for illegal reentry.
But this blog isn’t just about confinement. It is about liberty. It is about the migrant who walks into our comedor on his first day of freedom after a 3 month jail term for illegal reentry. Or the woman who comes in praising God after spending 18 months in detention pleading an asylum case that she eventually lost. Or even the older man who stands up during prayer to share that it is his first day on the outside after serving 33 years on a felony conviction.
There is something quite powerful about meeting someone in their first day of liberty in months or years. They have a confidence brought about by the freedom to choose their next steps. To breathe the outside air and go walking down the street without advising anybody.
At times this liberty is a passing sensation. They face the desire to cross again to be with their families but in the process risk many more months in jail. They consider the entrapment of poverty that seems to limit all options and escapes. They feel the pressure of their families – such as one 16 year old boy who cried and cried as he said that he didn’t want to cross again but his older sister told him that they had to in order to support their sick mother.
In the end, real freedom has to be something more than a feeling that comes in the moment of release from jail. Real freedom cannot be taken away. As today’s mass readings prophesy, Jesus was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61). As I walk with migrants who are enjoying their first moments of physical freedom, I am growing to better understand this spiritual freedom. Where in spite of all of our constraints Jesus has miraculously released us from sin. We are incredibly free. And much like the joy of liberty that migrants often experience, this freedom is not something that can be perfectly described. To be understood, it has to be lived.