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ICE Detention Center In Texas First To Offer Spiritual Space

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Aired 11/26/12

The federal immigration detention center in El Paso, Texas is breaking in a new intercultural faith center, which officials said is the first of its kind in the country.

Courtesy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials dedicate the country's first intercultural center inside an El Paso immigration detention facility in October 2012.

— The federal immigration detention center in El Paso, Texas is breaking in a new intercultural faith center, which officials said is the first of its kind in the country.

On a recent afternoon, a single file of women detainees with their hair pulled back and no makeup stepped into the intercultural center for a weekly spiritual session. The center is a small rectangular room with concrete floors and bare beige walls. The only decor is an image of a seaside sunset on the back wall.

The detainees write their names with Sharpie markers on nametags they stick to the breast of their grey uniforms. Then they take a seat in a circle of blue plastic chairs.

Sister Rita Specht, assistant chaplain at the center, greets the women as they enter. She will lead them in a two hour spiritual program meant to help manage stress. The session is faith-neutral and includes Tai Chi exercises and dancing.

Specht said her role at the center is to provide support to the detainees.

"Mostly what I do is listen to their stories and try to provide some sense of hope in their time of waiting here," she said. "There's nothing I can do about their immigration situation. It's really to be a presence to them."

The average length of stay for a detainee is 20 days, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa.

All religious faiths are allowed to practice within the intercultural center. That includes people from more mainstream religions like Christians, Muslims and Jews to less common faiths like Scientologists and those who worship the Santa Muerte, or the Sacred Death.

Those who use the space come from everywhere: Africa, Asia and Latin America. Before the center opened in October detainees practiced their religious actives in a noisy gym or the cafeteria. In this new space, finding peace is much easier.

One detainee, Elena, was especially grateful for the weekly spiritual sessions.

"We can distract ourselves here," she said. "It's difficult in the barracks, stuck between four walls. At least here we can reflect and meditate."

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