Apr 302015

Thousands of refugee moms and their children are imprisoned in family detention centers with no hope for their future. The human and financial costs of this injustice ought to compel us to change the way we approach immigration. Our church teaches us to welcome the stranger and to come to the aid of the vulnerable persons in our midst. Our church calls us to fix our broken immigration system, now.

This crisis began last summer and fall when approximately 60,000 migrant families and around 51,000 unaccompanied children fled their Central American homes for the United States, largely because of violence and persecution. Our government responded by rapidly expanding its family detention capacity, building new facilities or retrofitting existing facilities in Texas and New Mexico. The goal was to increase family detention bed space up to possibly 6,350 beds, according to a report by Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (Dec. 18, 2014). The New Mexico facility has been closed; the other family detention centers are located in Berks, Penn., and in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas, with a total of nearly 3,100 beds.

Immigration officers and judges have determined that some of these women and children have credible fear of persecution and thus, a significant possibility of receiving asylum. Their detention violates federal immigration law; asylum seekers are typically released as they await their hearings.

The status of women and children being held in what U.S. bishops describe as prison-like detention centers (the majority operated by for-profit prison corporations) should not matter. They deserve to be treated like human beings, created in the image of God like the rest of us.

America magazine reported that 78 women at the Karnes City facility, concerned about unhealthy conditions, wrote a letter in Spanish stating that they were staging a hunger strike (which may have occurred around Holy Week). At least a couple of the women and their young children allegedly wound up in isolation rooms in the medical unit, forced to sit in darkness except during mealtimes. “The practice of isolation and sensory deprivation is controversial even for violent criminals,” America wrote in its April 27 issue. “If the practice is in fact being used on mothers and children, it is a human rights violation.”

A coalition of immigrants’ rights and immigrant legal services groups (including Catholic Legal Immigration Network) declares that “the detention of children and their mothers is not only inhumane, but also incompatible with a fair legal process.” The CARA coalition has established a family detention project to provide legal services to children and their mothers detained in the two Texas facilities. CARA also advocates for the end of family detention. We commend the coalition’s efforts and see it as a first step in a multi-pronged approach to the immigration crisis.

Family detention is also expensive and wasteful. Justice for Immigrants, a project of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says the current immigration detention system costs taxpayers $2 billion per year! Alternatives to detention are more humane and cost effective, the bishops say. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report demonstrates cost savings for alternatives to detention (Nov. 2014).

Alternatives might include supervised release to an individual, to family member(s), nongovernmental, religious or community organizations; release on bail or bond; reporting requirements; electronic monitoring, home curfew or satellite tracking (

We view these alternatives as more humane, even if more resources are required. As a church, we need to build partnerships with governmental and non-governmental organizations to provide alternatives to detention programs.

We would also recommend that our readers view an excellent documentary “Abrazos,” that puts a human face on how our broken immigration system impacts individuals and families. It’s tough to watch a silver-haired Guatemalan father tear up because he hasn’t seen his son in nearly 20 years. To see the video, contact Loxi Hopkins in the Davenport Diocese’s Social Action Office at (563) 888-4212.

These steps would be unnecessary with comprehensive immigration in place. Contact members of Congress and tell them to cut the partisan politics and take action on immigration reform. This is not a political issue; it’s a human rights issue.

Barb Arland-Fye

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