CAIR Coalition and MVS Collaborate to Aid Detainee

MVS collaboration aids detained man - Thursday, June 19, 2008
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Mennonite Mission Network) - For Washington, D.C., Mennonite Voluntary Service workers Bradley Jenkins and Rebecca Drooger, a dinnertime conversation turned into a dynamic collaboration of compassion.

Jenkins and Drooger worked to connect their nonprofits, the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition and Christ House, to provide one detained immigrant appropriate medical care and dignity.

Due to chronic illness, Tom's* life will soon draw to a close. However, because of the combined efforts of those at the CAIR Coalition and Christ House, he will pass away in hospice care instead of being neglected in prison.

Susan Rieth, clinical operations administrator at Christ House, said, "The result of Brad and Rebecca's persistence was that a very sick man, a man who was misplaced by the system and deprived of adequate care, was brought to a place where he could get the care and attention that he needed."

In spring of 2007, Tom was a legal permanent resident of the United States but had decided he wanted to return to his home country. He was being treated for HIV at the time.

Masquerading as an airport employee, he snuck past security by helping an elderly woman in a wheel chair through the check point. He then boarded an international flight. Upon arriving at his destination and failing to present appropriate documentation, he was returned to the United States and detained in a Virginia jail pending immigration proceedings.

Tom had no inclination to take his HIV medication, and the prison staff did not force the drugs. As a result, Tom's weakened immune system could not resist the brain infection that eventually evolved into dementia. Because his increasing mental instability made him a nuisance to guards, he was soon placed in isolation.

Jenkins first met Tom in fall 2007, several months after beginning his MVS assignment. As a legal assistant at the CAIR Coalition, Jenkins regularly visits detention centers to counsel immigrant inmates about rights and representation. By the time they met, Tom was suffering from severe dementia as a result of his full-blown AIDS.

As Tom's health continued to deteriorate, both the prison staff and the CAIR Coalition pleaded with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement to move him to a medical facility where he could be better cared for.

Finally, federal officials agreed that if the CAIR Coalition could find a placement for Tom, they would release him. It was at this point that the MVS house dinner table became a nonprofit networking site.

Since August 2007, Drooger has worked as the medical unit assistant at Christ House, an in-patient medical facility serving homeless people.

Because of Drooger's position and training, Jenkins said he often seeks her council on social work issues. But this time he was after more than advice. He wondered if Tom could stay at Christ House.

Despite the limitations of space and staff, Jenkins and Christ House staff eventually arranged for Tom to transfer there in early spring.

Tom arrived cuffed at hand and foot and escorted by armed guards. Drooger said he was functioning at the level of a 2-year-old.

As Drooger and Jenkins wrestled to pull him out from the cracks of the legal and medical systems, Tom lived at Christ House. Even as his physical and mental functionality continued to decrease, Tom warmed to the tender care he received there. When he first arrived, Drooger said Tom called all white men, "Officer." But he soon shifted to addressing those around him alternately as mommy, daddy, grandma and grandpa.
Every day, he would sit at Drooger's desk and talk to passersby because he liked being around people.
Drooger said Tom was always friendly and cheerful. He complimented those around him on small things, like the coloring of their eyes or the short sleeves they were sporting. The most lucid conversation that the two of them ever shared was about Drooger's hair color. It seems Tom's family had owned a beauty salon at one time.

Still, Tom's health continued to decline. After a month at Christ House, he stopped communicating and eating. Staff took him to a hospital where medical personnel could now legally intervene in his care in ways they could not when he was alert. With little improvement, it became clear that Christ House could no longer meet Tom's needs. Christ House is now working to connect him with a hospice facility for homeless men and women.

Drooger and Jenkins said Tom will most likely pass away before his legal case reaches resolution. According to Drooger, the efforts of Christ House were less about lengthening Tom's life than about providing the unique kind of care he needed at the end of it.

Said Jenkins, "If we would not have intervened, the man would have died alone in a segregation cell instead of living out what remained of his life in the supportive community that Christ House was able to provide."

Systemic injustice and bureaucracy robbed Tom of his longevity and his humanity. Though the former is lost forever, through the grace of God and the collaborative work of Jenkins, Drooger and their co-workers, Tom has regained the latter. As he now treads that holy ground between life and death, love - not neglect - shepherds Tom home.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Rosabeth Birky Koehn