Holding on to God in ICE custody
By Jonah Newman
Simeon Simeonov held his Bible close to him as he huddled under his umbrella, among more than 50 immigrant rights activists and religious leaders, outside the Broadview Detention Center, a non-descript brick building in a suburb west of Chicago, near O’Hare International Airport.
The activists were both celebrating and protesting. They celebrated the fact that, in late April 2009, two and a half years after Sisters JoAnn Persch and Patricia Murphy began saying rosary outside the detention center every Friday, they were finally allowed to pray with the detainees on the buses to the airport. They protested the continued inhumane treatment of immigrant detainees and the broken immigration system that allows them to be locked up in the first place.
The proximity of this Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility to the airport is not accidental. More than 11,000 undocumented immigrants were deported from Broadview alone last year, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
For Simeonov, the rally held a special meaning. Just a few months ago he was on the other side of the brick walls, awaiting deportation with his son Stoyan.
The Simeonovs arrived in the U.S. with their son and daughter in 1994 from Bulgaria with authorization to work. At some point over the years, they “fell out of status,” but decided to stay in this country where they had built a home and their lives.
One day last year, at 5:30 a.m., five ICE officers with guns entered their house, demanding to see paperwork and green cards, neither of which they had. With harsh words and physical intimidation, the officers arrested Simeonov and his son and took them to Broadview, leaving his wife Stella and daughter Vania at home, wondering what to do.
“We came here for freedom, for a better life,” Simeonov said, as his daughter translated for him.
One of the freedoms they were looking for was the freedom of religion. In Bulgaria, the Simeonovs say, they couldn’t have bibles or practice their Christianity openly.
But Simeonov found that as an immigrant detainee, his religious freedom was little more than he experienced in Bulgaria. He was again denied access to a bible and his only interaction with a pastor was via a video monitor.
Still, immigration officials were unable to keep Simeonov from connecting with God. When asked if he ever felt hopeless in jail he said, “God gave me strength to go through these five months. God is the most important.”
Like many immigrant families, the Simeonovs have been separated. Just as unexpectedly as they were arrested, Stoyan was deported to Bulgaria while Simeon was ultimately released. Taken in separate cars to the airport, Simeon refused to get out of the car, and the ICE officials didn’t force him. But Stoyan, not knowing that he had any other choice, got out at the airport and boarded a plane to Bulgaria.
In January, Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Sen. Roland Burris introduced bills into the House and Senate that provided special treatment for the Simeonovs, allowing them to stay in the U.S. for at least two more years. The bills are still in committee and have yet to be voted on by either house, according to govtrack.us, a website that tracks congressional activities. But the act of introducing it was enough to get Simeon out of ICE custody and back with his family.
The help of elected officials has renewed Simeonov’s faith in the America that he first came here for.
“It’s perfect, just the immigration system is bad,” Simeonov said.
As someone who has experienced the worst of the immigration system, Simeonov has no plans to return to Bulgaria. Clutching his Bible in one hand and holding the umbrella in another, he is even able to crack a smile.
“This is home,” he said.