Juanita Kirschke

"Holding immigrant children and families incommunicado, denying them adequate clothing, exercise, showers or even toothbrushes, says more about those who detain than those who are detained." —Juanita Kirschke, 2000

Juanita Kirschke is often the first voice of hope and kindness encountered by countless asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and other foreign detainees when they are in jail. Now Director of the Detention Resource Project in Philadelphia, PA, Juanita has committed the past four years of her life to ensure this often mistreated and forgotten group receives not only legal representation, but more humane treatment.

Born in the suburbs of Chicago in 1944 and raised in Buffalo NY, Juanita received a degree in nursing and a Master’s in Art History. For as long as she can remember, Juanita has been sensitive to the plight of refugees. Over time, she has come to recognize that even those seeking protection after arriving in the U.S., or at U.S. borders, often face harsh circumstances. While working with Amnesty International as a volunteer, she initiated a pilot project to work with detainees seeking asylum, and thus began making the 1 1/2 hour drive from her home outside Philadelphia to a prison in Berks County, Pennsylvania. There she, together with other volunteers she had recruited, would spend hours interviewing INS detainees about their backgrounds, the current status of their immigration cases, and their need for legal representation.

There are about 16,000 INS detainees held in jails and detention centers across the country. Pennsylvania county jails currently house a growing population of 1500 of them which by the end of next year is estimated to reach 2600. Many are seeking asylum. When they arrive in this country without proper travel documentation, which often can be impossible for them to procure, they are immediately detained. Others are non-citizens, detained after serving sentences for convictions of crimes, who face deportation because of these convictions. Some, known as “lifers,” are set to be deported, but their countries cannot or will not receive them. For them, detention becomes an endless sentence.

In response to the needs of this growing population, Juanita has established the Detention Resource Project, an effort through which she coordinates staff and volunteers, keeps track of hundreds of cases, and tries to ensure those released from detention move on to successfully rebuild their lives. As a result of her efforts, quiet but sure progress has been made. Juanita helped promote a program, originally launched in Arizona, which enables detainees to view a video that educates them about their rights and explains the legal proceedings they face. She has worked to provide legal self-help materials to detainees; she has also worked to ensure relevant information regarding immigration law is available to detainees in prison law libraries. Throughout, Juanita’s work with people in Immigration detention has focused on lowering the barriers to information and provision of service imposed by circumstances of detention.

This past year, Juanita has worked particularly closely with children in INS detention. Most of these children arrive in the U.S. alone, undocumented, and are detained on entry. Many are seeking asylum and either have come on their own initiative or have been sent by family who felt helpless to protect them. Working with two legal service agencies, Juanita has helped develop a model for aiding detained children which provides education about the legal process, legal representation, and accompaniment for children, while their immigration cases are pursued in court.

Juanita Kirschke is known as a remarkably skilled organizer, a passionate advocate, and a gifted strategist. She also has a big heart, often bringing home detainees who have been released, but who have no place to go, and no friend to turn to. The mother of two, Juanita lives outside Philadelphia with her husband, Jim, an English professor at Villanova University.

Juanita Kirschke Photo by Dorothea von Haeften