ST. FRANCIS — One thing kept Amalia Molina from despair during the 16 months she spent in a cold, sterile detention center in Los Angeles, separated from her husband and three children.

Amalia Molina

Amalia Molina

It was the smiling, compassionate face of a volunteer who regularly came to visit that brought the Salvadoran mother some hope and peace during her incarceration in the late 1990s.

“One day I was sobbing, and she asked why I was crying and I said I missed my children so much, and she said to me, ‘Have you ever experienced God’s love and miracles in your life? He’s now helping you and he will never leave you,’” the volunteer told the despairing mother.

“Those words were like an injection, like a blood transfusion and gave me so much peace,” she recalled.

The volunteers come “with their beautiful faces, their beautiful smiles, treating you with kindness that you don’t receive from the guards. They are the ones to transform those places and it’s those moments of faith, love and friendship; these volunteers can save lives,” she told the Catholic Herald in an interview Nov. 11.

Molina, a member of the Dismas Ministry board, spoke about ministry for families of the incarcerated at the Nov. 10-11 “Concluding the Year of Mercy Behind Bars” national Catholic prison ministry conference at the Cousins Center.

When Molina was released from the detention facility in 2000, one of the first things she did was give back by volunteering with Jesuit Refugee Services.[su_pullquote align=”right”]For related story, click here.[/su_pullquote]

Her introduction to the jail system was a result of the complicated U.S. immigration system. She arrived in the United States in 1996, a year after her husband, Gil, arrived, and she only planned to stay for 15 days, but remained to make money to help bring her children here.

“We worked seven days a week, living on $20 and saving the rest,” she said. Finally, in 1997, the couple brought their three children, then ages 13, 16 and 18, to the United States.[su_pullquote align=”right”]For more information about Dismas Ministry or about how to get involved in ministry to the incarcerated visit[/su_pullquote]

“It was the best feeling as a mother, as a family, to be all together,” she said. “We were living in Los Angeles, the children were in school, my daughter was in college. Everything was fine. We bought a home as first-time home buyers, because we wanted to succeed for the children.”

But in 1999, she was arrested during a traffic stop for overstaying her visa. The arrest was frustrating for Molina, who said she came to the United States legally and had filed for legal permanent residence through a citizen relative.

“We were trying to be legal; we did not want to be undocumented,” she said, explaining the process can take up to 10 years. “We wanted to work and do it right, but we did not have the paper that said our application had been accepted.”

Gil was also arrested at that time and their three children were on their own. Molina said she was distraught, worrying about them.

Initially, the children lived in the family home – a three-unit building. They lived off the rent from the other two units but eventually couldn’t keep up the payments and lost the home.

“They were living by themselves, had nobody to trust; it was terrible,” she said, adding it has left a big scar on their lives.

“They didn’t share how much it hurts, but I know what they went through. They never told me anything because they did not want me to worry, but as a child, not to have a place to live, not to have clothing, as a child with no adult to support you, it must be terrifying.”

Even though they were suffering, she said she was proud they did not enter the foster care system and their grades never dropped.

In addition to worrying about her children, Molina described being initially taken to a cold, windowless room with metal benches in the federal immigration detention center in Los Angeles Harbor.

“The women who were being deported were there crying, moms with babies are there crying; it is horrible, so inhumane. You are just locked there and nobody talks to you,” she said.

She was transferred to a permanent institution where she could have visitors and met the Catholic volunteers that she said “gave me the strength to keep going and to keep my faith alive.”

Jesuit Fr. Robert McChesney helped her turn her incarceration into a ministry, suggesting that she look around and see that they need somebody to help. You can help them, he told her.

After 16 months, Molina was released and picked up the pieces of her life. Gil was also released, but during his incarceration, he felt ill and asked to see a doctor. Several X-rays were taken, but he was never told of the results.

Six months after he was released, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Before his death, the family gathered and asked Gil what he wanted them to do. Should they return to El Salvador or remain in the United States?

“I want to stay,” he told them, according to Molina. He said to the children, “You are my American dream and whatever it takes to fulfill that American dream, even if I pay with my life.”

Molina, 61, a member of St. John Baptist Parish in Northridge, California, and an American citizen since 2012, worked for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for 10 years, developing the Families of the Incarcerated program of the Office of Restorative Justice. For the last three years, she has headed the Center for Restorative Justice Works – Los Angeles, a ministry founded by Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet Suzanne Jabro.

Her eldest daughter is a nurse, middle daughter received a scholarship from Loyola Marymount University where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and her son is working with an insurance company.

Molina told her immigration story in a book published in 2012, “The Power of Love: My Experience in a U.S. Immigration Jail,” and works to help people in detention, particularly women, helping them keep in contact with their children.

Looking back on her experience in the jail, she calls it life changing.

“It was a great experience, a painful experience, but in the end, it changed my life completely. I found a meaning in my incarceration,” Molina said, explaining how she sees that she and other incarcerated women shared something in common. “We lost everything, we lost our children but never gave up our spirit and worked to keep our faith alive.”