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More than 400,000 undocumented immigrants move through government-run detention centers every year around the U.S. It can take months before they find out if they'll be deported or allowed to stay. During this long wait, many become frustrated. Some turn to religion. It's the job of the in-house chaplain to help connect detainees to religious services, and we're going to hear now about the challenges of meeting the spiritual needs of detainees who come from all over the world. Liz Jones of member station KUOW has our story.
LIZ JONES, BYLINE: The radio on Keith Henderson's hip crackles as we head into a meeting room. He's chaplain at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash.
KEITH HENDERSON: I love it. I love the job.
JONES: Partly, he says, because he likes challenges. This facility holds nearly 1,600 people who face deportation. Henderson's job is to arrange worship services that match their religions and languages.
HENDERSON: We have Chinese, Korean. We have Spanish. We have English, and we have Russian all going on at the same time in one service.
JONES: The center currently offer services for eight different religions. Immigration officials say every detention facility has a chaplain on staff like Henderson. They help make sure religious needs get met, from kosher meals to Catholic mass to Muslim and Sikh prayer services. Here, Henderson says about half the detainees take part in the worship services, and it can make a big difference.
HENDERSON: Some guys come, you know, and you watch them. They sit in the back, and then after time, they start really participating. So it's a - it is a transformation.
JONES: That chaplaincy program started here in 2008, and after that, Henderson says the staff noticed a distinct change across the whole facility.
HENDERSON: The statistical, you know, violence and everything else just dropped.
JONES: About 75 percent of detainees in this facility come from Mexico and Central America, but the rest are from everywhere else. That diversity keeps Henderson on his toes. On a given day, he might get a detainee who's Jewish or Greek Orthodox or who only speaks Japanese, so he works with a lot of interpreters and outside volunteer groups who bring all these religious services into the detention center...
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in foreign language).
JONES: ...Like this one. It's the Sikh prayer service held here every Saturday. About 70 men in blue and orange jumpsuits are gathered in a large cafeteria. Almost all are from Punjab, India. They sit together on flannel blankets. Bandannas cover their heads. A man in business clothes leads the group. That's Balwant Aulck from the Sikh Center of Seattle. He says the chaplain called them a few years ago asking for books for the Punjabi detainees.
BALWANT AULCK: I said, well, we can do even more, you know? And that's how it started.
JONES: Different volunteers from the Sikh Center come here every weekend to lead this prayer service. It lasts about 20 minutes.
AULCK: Once they do prayer, then it's - kind of brings them calmness, frustration goes out.
JONES: Afterwards, a few men gather around Aulck. Some talk about their families or their court cases.
AULCK: I just try to make sure they're settled. What that mean is they accept the consequences.
JONES: An official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allowed me to interview a few detainees but not use anyone's name. One man who's lived in the U.S. 22 years says this group service reinforces his faith and helps him cope with some frustrations of daily life here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Like, me and - I have one other - a guy - he's my celly - we doing every day, 6 o'clock in the cell, both. We sit down there on the blanket, and we pray every day. But here, when you come in here, they make it more - better strength like you go in the church, you know?
JONES: He says many guys here - they all pray for the same thing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: God, just let us go from here. Just give us one chance to go there, and we can be better person.
JONES: And the prayers lift them out of this place...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When we pray, we feel like we go home, you know?
JONES: ...If only for a few brief moments. For NPR News, I'm Liz Jones in Seattle.
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