Juana came to the U.S. with her daughter, seeking asylum. Both of them have been beaten and sexually abused, victims of the escalating violence in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the most violent city in the world. Honduras is also the second poorest country in this hemisphere. Poverty and violence tend to be bedfellows.
I met Juana while visiting women and children at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio. Of course, Juana is not her real name. Our delegation of Lutheran and Roman Catholic bishops, guided by the careful planning of leaders of our respective partner agencies, participated in this visit to what can only be described as an internment camp from my point of view.
Remember the internment of the Japanese during World War II, like the camp in Crystal City, Texas, that held thousands of Japanese and German immigrants and even their U.S. born children? Well, we are doing it again and the policy is being directed from the top of the Obama administration in Washington, D.C.
So how should a woman with a child, both of whom have been victimized and abused, be treated if they seek asylum? What is the right thing to do? As it turns out, this is not a new question. The Bible has utter clarity on the matter. The God-fearing person is always to welcome the stranger, the sojourner. We are called to bind up the broken-hearted.
International law has clarity on this as well. The United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees outlines how refugees and asylum-seekers are to be treated: They are not to be incarcerated. Victims of violence and persecution are fragile. Some have been tortured and traumatized. Confinement re-traumatizes and exacerbates the situation.
Furthermore, punishment of one group cannot be used to deter another group. But this is precisely what is happening—the administration has said so. They are using detention to discourage others who might seek asylum. This is not only wrong, but also ineffective. They are still coming. Unfortunately, it is effective it one thing: ruining peoples lives.
On Friday, March 27, Catholic and Lutheran faith leaders visited Dilley, where Juana and other young mothers with children from Central America were being detained, to hear their stories, as well as their concerns and fears for their children. Our group included Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio; Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration; Bishop James A. Tamayo of Laredo, Texas, consultant for USCCB Committee on Migration; Bishop H. Julian Gordy, Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and chairperson, Conference of Bishops’ Immigration Ready Bench; Linda Hartke, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and myself.
Seventy Lutheran and Roman Catholic bishops also sent a letter to President Obama asking him to reconsider this practice of locking up families.
The visit was difficult. First of all, when we arrived Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials told us that we would not be permitted to speak to any of the women. Although representatives of the Lutheran and Catholic churches had spent weeks clarifying the purpose of our visit, we were told it would not be possible. We were gently but firmly persistent. The conversation became tense, as people stepped closer and closer together. “There is not enough time … The ‘residents’ are busy doing other things … We have not been authorized for this.” And so on. Higher-ups were brought in, and after being told “No” at least a dozen times, they said we might be able to visit with a small group of people.
Archbishop Garcia-Siller of San Antonio was a paragon of patience, kindness, and persistence. When we went into the dining hall to meet with the group of women, he began the conversation with words of compassion. Immediately, the women began to break down and the tears flowed. Every single mother I visited with erupted with tears. We quietly absorbed their stories, our hearts growing heavier with each passing moment.
As our time went on and as we walked around the facility, I spoke to every person I saw, about two dozen mothers and a few children. The children were perilously thin; one boy showed me his ribs. The mothers told me there was plenty of food, but it was awful, and their children would not eat it. They kept saying, “lots of condiments.” The women told me that the water tasted terrible. The staff drinks bottled water, but bottled water is expensive. The women can earn $3 a day (a day!) working in the camp. A small bottle of water in the commissary costs $2. These women are confused because the system seems stacked against them. The Dilley facility, which is built on land that formerly held housing for oil field workers, has been leased by the government and is operated by CCA, a large, private, for-profit prison firm. Still under construction, the center will become the largest detention facility in the United States.
In 2009, the Obama Administration closed what then was the United States’ largest family immigration detention facility after years of controversy, media exposure, and a lawsuit. Conditions at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, and the impact of detention on families and children proved that family detention could not be carried out humanely.
In the summer of 2014, with an increase in the number of mothers and children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America, the administration has returned to this widely discredited and costly practice.
Family detention is expensive. Adult detention costs $161 per bed per day, while family detention costs $260 per bed per day. Who pays for this dehumanizing effort? You and I, through our taxes. When finished, Dilley will cost taxpayers an estimated $298 per bed per day or approximately $261 million annually.
Yet there are humane alternatives: Every woman I met had a place to stay in the U.S. “Mi hermana vive en Houston” [My sister lives in Houston]. Detention is unnecessary. These women and children are not flight risks. They want to be here. They want to be citizens, tax-paying citizens I might add, in a free, safe country. For centuries, immigrants have taken care of immigrants. This is the foundation of American society. The last century’s immigrants always seem to be afraid of the next century’s new wave of immigrants, but they always bring blessing and vitality, as we have discovered in our history.
The detention centers at Artesia, New Mexico, Karnes, and Dilley, Texas, are affronts to human rights. They are the products of our fear of the stranger. The average age of detained children is six years of age. Six! We are treating infants, toddlers, and pregnant women as a threat to national security.
Let’s stop it. These camps are rife for abuse. When you give people with few options low-paying jobs with power over a powerless, vulnerable population, bad things eventually happen. In 2014, the Karnes facility was in the news for allegations of sexual assault. Just this month, a woman attempted suicide in the Dilley facility. Confinement leads to hopelessness, and hopelessness leads to all kinds of things. Bookmark this article. Mark my words. Something bad is going to happen.
In the meantime, we pray for Juana and the women at Dilley. Juana has had her interview, and she has been recommended for asylum status. The government set her bail at $10,000. (The lowest bail I heard was $7,500 and the highest was $15,000.) The deck is stacked against her. How can a campesina [countrywoman] from Honduras afford that, even with help from family? She shook her head and repeated her daughter’s name as the tears rolled down her face.
We prayed with them as a group. As they prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in Spanish together with the bishops, representatives, and even some of the staff, I listened to their fragile, faithful voices pleading,
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not to temptation
But deliver us from evil…
The letter to the president
Honorable Barack H. Obama
United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
As faith leaders representing churches, synagogues, and faith-based organizations in the United States who are deeply committed to upholding this country’s moral leadership to protect children and the sanctity of the family, we call on you to end the harsh policy of family detention and employ alternatives to detention where deemed necessary. We believe this practice to be inhumane and harmful to the physical, emotional, and mental well being of this vulnerable population.
We also believe that it is inappropriate and unjust to seek to deter anyone, especially a woman and her children, from fleeing violence in their homeland to seek safe haven in the United States. A recent decision by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., which issued an injunction halting the detention of families, agreed with this assessment, concluding that a strategy of deterrence does not warrant the deprivation of individual liberty.
As people of faith, we are guided by admonitions to care for and protect children. Studies have shown that detention has a harmful psychological effect on children, in which they grow despondent, lose weight, and do not advance in their intellectual or emotional growth. Detention also undermines family bonds and parental authority. Moreover, children and their parent(s) have already experienced trauma on their journey, with many of the women having endured sexual violence. Placing survivors of violence in detention only adds to their trauma and sense of insecurity. It also subjects them to possible further emotional or physical abuse.
These families are not a threat to our communities—they pose no risk to our safety and have committed no crimes. They are themselves fleeing real forms of terror, with a majority having valid asylum claims.
While in detention they have less ability to access counsel to help them with their claims, leaving them without due process protections. Their detention also hinders the ability to gather evidence of their persecution, diminishing their chances of obtaining protection.
Instead of incarcerating these vulnerable families, we urge you to reconsider the need to detain them and release them on their recognizance or explore other alternatives, such as placement in a community-based case management program.
Mr. President, detaining mothers and babies who come to this country in search of refuge from violence and abuse is morally troubling. The Bible is very clear—we are called to welcome the stranger. We ask you to consider whether you are prepared for your legacy to include the purposeful detention of
innocent mothers and babies in furthering an ineffective policy of deterrence that violates fundamental tenants of our faiths and the American ideal of providing freedom and refuge to the persecuted. The incarceration of vulnerable mothers and children fleeing violence in their home countries is a black mark on the record of this Administration.
We urge you to reverse course on this policy and implement alternatives for all families in immigration detention that are humane and uphold the human rights of this vulnerable population. Our faith communities are ready and willing to welcome and assist families seeking refuge.
[Signed by over 70 Lutheran and Catholic bishops]
- “From Persecution to Prison: Child and Family Detention“, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
- “Locking Up Family Values, Again”, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, October 2014
- “The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps”, New York Times Magazine, February 4, 2015
- “Family Detention 101“, Detention Watch Network
- “Costly Family Detention Denies Justice to Mothers and Children“, National Immigrant Justice Center
- “Detention Center Presented as Deterrent to Border Crossings”, New York Times, December 15, 2014
- “For-Profit Family Detention: Meet the Private Prison Corporations Making Millions by Locking Up Refugee Families” report by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies, October 2014
- “Hutto: America’s Family Prison” a short film exploring the first big experiment with family detention between 2006-2009 at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.
- National Sign-on letter asking President Obama to end family detention, co-written by LIRS, March 17, 2015
- Blog on protection rights for children in detention centers, posted by American Immigration Council, March 18, 2015
- Press release on attempted suicide at Dilley Detention Center, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, March 10, 2015
- Blog on LIRS employee’s visit to Dilley Center, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, January 23, 2015