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My friends were detained by ICE in Philly. Here’s what happened when I tried to help them. | Perspective

On July 2, 2019, Stockton professor Elisa von Joeden-Forgey received a text from her friend Elly: “Elisa ICE detain me n my husband.”

Screenshot of a text that Elisa von Joeden-Forgey received from her friend Elly on July 2, 2019.
Screenshot of a text that Elisa von Joeden-Forgey received from her friend Elly on July 2, 2019.Read moreScreenshot via Elisa von Joeden-Forgey (custom credit)

On July 2, at 9:02 a.m., Stockton University professor Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a Bella Vista resident, received a text from her friend Elly: “Elisa ICE detain me n my husband.”

“It’s a text nobody wants to get,” Forgey wrote on Facebook later that day, after spending the day at the Philadelphia ICE office trying to get information about Elly and her husband, Fnu. Forgey detailed the frustrating experience in a Facebook post titled “American Nightmare,” that, as of press time, has been shared more than 21,000 times.

Here, an adapted version of that Facebook post, edited lightly for length and clarity:

My friends Elly and Fnu are asylum seekers from Indonesia who have been in this country for about 20 years as their case wound its way through the immigration system. They have two children who are American citizens. They are beloved members of the community, people who volunteer for everything. As with many asylum cases, their case has sometimes left them “out of status.” This is how their arrest was justified.

When I heard that they had been detained, I did not know what to do, so I went to the Philadelphia ICE office. It is a nondescript three-floor operation at 114 North 8th Street. It is sparse, with portable metal detectors and a few chairs, line separators that lead nowhere, and framed photos of President Trump and Vice President Pence hanging askew on the wall.

The security personnel on the first floor don’t make eye contact. They asked me why I was there. I said because my friends had been picked up earlier that morning. “Are you sure?” they asked. I wondered if they did this to create confusion and persuade me to leave. I said I was sure. They asked me for my friend’s name and I gave it to them. To me, it seemed like they recognized Elly’s name when I said it.

“Put your things here,” they said. “Walk through there,” they said, ushering my through the metal detector.

“Thank you,” I found myself saying, as if they had just done me a favor. I asked myself why I was doing this. Perhaps because they seem to have knowledge? Can they maybe help my friend? Or impart some secret information that will spring my friends from the grips of state power?

“You can go to the third floor,” they said. “You can ask about your friends there.”

“We don’t do that here.”

The office on the third floor was cramped. Chairs along walls. A standing table for filling out paperwork. Lots of people from many places. Children with toys. I was initially confused by sounds of joy. A father laughed as his toddler played with a plastic tic-tac-toe board. For a short moment I relaxed, my body thinking I was in a pediatrician’s office.

I looked for my friend’s brother, who I knew was on the way. He was not there.

There was a small plexiglass window with one of those metal speakers. Behind it were three people doing something that I can only describe as milling about. There was nothing in their “office.” Not even a chair. No calendar. There was none of the collegiality you see in real offices.

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I went to the plexiglass. “Hello?” I said into the speaker. Three people ignored me. I stood and waited. Could they not hear me? I bent down to speak again and a woman on the other side looked at me and said, “Press the button,” motioning to something on my left. She watched me as I found the button and pressed it. I heard no sound.

She squared her shoulders. “Can I help you?”

“I’m here about a friend of mine who was picked up this morning.”

“Yes?” She replied.

“I would like to register community support. She and her husband are very important members of our community.”

“We don’t do that here.”

“Her name is. ...”

“We don’t do that here. We have nothing to write it down on.”

“Well, can I write it down and maybe you can put it in her file or tell someone?”

“We don’t do that.”

I stood back, thinking about next steps. There’s almost no signage in the room, but I noticed a photocopy taped to the plexiglass: “Please, please, please ring the bell.” I turned around, baffled.

Just then, my husband, Scott, walked in. I felt a renewed sense of hope.

We approached the plexiglass together.

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He spoke through the metal microphone and, before I could tell him, he was told by a man on the inside to ring the bell.

With the bell pressed, Scott told the man that he was there to support two important community members who were picked up this morning on their way to work.

“Okay,” the man said. “What do you want?”

“I’d like to see them.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t.”

“I’d like to talk to the agent who arrested them.”

“If you are not a lawyer. ...”

“I am a lawyer.” He presented his business card.

“Sit down over there.”

“I’m here to see my friends who are being detained in this building.”

We sat. I noticed a woman standing with the family whose toddler had earlier been making his father laugh. She walked over to the plexiglass window.

“Excuse me,” she said.

No answer. People walking around on the inside. She rested her weight on her elbow and scanned the waiting room with authority. She turned back to peer into the inside. Her left hand pressed the bell with annoyance. “EXCUSE ME.” Pressed, pressed, pressed the bell.

She scanned the waiting room again. She caught my eye and I realized I was smiling with relief at her acknowledgment of this strange situation. I felt shame for smiling, but she seemed pleased.

“You know they do this because they can,” she announced to me loudly.

Pressed, pressed, pressed the bell. Finally, a woman on the other side made some gesture of recognition.


A blank form was slid through an opening where the plexiglass meets the wall.

She took it and walked over to me.

“They don’t provide anyone for the illiterate people who come here,” she said loudly. “It’s a scandal. It’s disgusting. What are all these people supposed to do? I don’t care what is going on,” she said almost as an afterthought. “But you treat people with respect. That’s just how it works!”

She returned to the family she was helping.

As we waited, I realized that somewhere behind the walls in front of me are my friends. Their phones have been taken. Are they together? Have they eaten? What must they be feeling? In panic, I began to cry.

Then, a blond, blue-eyed man in a baseball cap, an untucked shirt, and jeans appeared behind the plexiglass and peered out with small, blank eyes. He looked like he could be at a ballpark or firing up the grill for a barbecue.

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Scott jumped up. “I’m here to see my friends who are being detained in this building.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“If you are not a lawyer. ...”

“I am a lawyer.” Scott showed his card again.

“If you are not their lawyer. ...”

“Okay, I’m their lawyer. Who are you?”

“I don’t have to tell you that.”

“I’d like to speak to the agent who arrested them. Is that you?”

The man hesitated, then said yes. He motioned for Scott to come to the side. They disappeared down a hallway.

I texted Elly’s brother. I was hoping Scott would soon see her and Fnu.

Quickly, Scott returned. He could not see our friends without filling out a form that they do not keep at this office. The agent told him that they would be moved to a detention center by 3 p.m. It was already after 12.

We sat for a bit, but soon realized that we were sitting there with no goal and no hope.

As we left, the security guards were milling about downstairs. I thanked them again, this time with a sense of despair. “No problem,” they said.

We met with Elly’s brother in his car to plan next steps. He’d found a lawyer to take their case. His phone was ringing almost nonstop as he coordinated details. My friends’ college-aged daughter was very quiet in the passenger seat. She had taken the day off from her work-study job after seeing her parents driven away in separate unmarked ICE vehicles.

Elisa von Joeden-Forgey is the Dr. Marsha Raticoff Grossman Associate Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University. A few days after her Facebook post went viral, she learned that her friends were taken to separate detention facilities. Their fate at this time is still unknown.