A Visit To Detention And Unaccompanied Minors Centers At the Arizona-Mexico Border

A Visit To Detention And Unaccompanied Minors Centers At the Arizona-Mexico Border September 21, 2018

 

Our first evening in Tucson is a briefing. The room is full of people committed to the work of immigrant advocacy. They spend their days protecting the rights of asylum seekers, over-seeing direct service for immigrants, and managing the resettlement program. The room also includes leaders from Tucson like Pastor Elizabeth Smith and Rocío Calderón who coordinate care visits to the Eloy Detention Center.

 

No briefing would be complete without charts and numbers. It is here, for example, that I first learn that back in 1994, the United States held under 10,000 undocumented immigrants in detention. Now in 2018, we actually set a target of holding over 51,000 in detention. We’re required by law to keep the beds full. At $133 per night, times 51,000 for 365 days, this is costing tax payers $2.5 billion. 73% of that cost goes to for-profit private companies, especially GEO and CoreCivic

Eloy Detention Center, owned and operated by for-profit CoreCivic

ELOY

The next morning, we get up and travel to Eloy Detention Center (you can watch a video tour of the detention center). Many immigrants call Eloy The Icebox(hielera) because it is so consistently cold inside. It’s about an hour drive out of Tucson to Eloy. The setting is stark, 100 degree temperatures by mid-morning under an unrelenting sun, with the Catalina mountains as backdrop and frame. Next to the welcome sign for the center is a large cactus.

 

This is not my first visit to an immigration detention center. Ever since one of my parishioners was apprehended by ICE here in Arkansas back in 2017, I have been visiting him at LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana. I make the seven hour drive once every three months or so, spend an hour visit with him, then drive home. Yes, that’s right. It takes me 14 hours to visit my parishioner, who until his detainment by ICE was one of our lectors, attended our weekly bible study, and contributed much to the vitality of our community and congregation.

 

Eloy is actually two enormous buildings set side by side, rising out of the desert landscape like cardboard boxes. The first is a higher security prison facility, housing criminal inmates. The second is the immigration detention center. When you pull into the parking lot, a white pickup drives up almost immediately and drives parallel to the van, an observation and security truck that monitors all activity in the parking lot. We park our van, then empty our pockets of everything. No belts, no jewelry, no wallets, no phones, no metal of any kind. Not even pen and paper are allowed. Just our clothes and our state issued ID (driver’s license).

 

You enter Eloy through a series of security gates. Each gate is a metal cage door surrounded by barbed wire. After this double buzzed entry, you come to the “lobby.” Already you feel the shocking cold, as the air goes from 100 degrees outside to under 70 inside.

 

At the lobby, we fill out visitor paperwork for a background check. Make a mistake on the form, you are required to discard the form and start over. It took me three tries to complete an accurate form front to back.

 

While we are completing these forms, we find out there was a miscommunication on the detention center pod schedule, so three of the four detainees we were going to visit are no longer available because they have switched pods. Doing a quick shuffle, we still get four of us in to visit one of the detainees.

 

Forms completed, we step through the metal detector, and wait in the second lobby.

 

While we wait, we witness a sad event. A family arrives intending to visit their loved one. But like us they learn there has been a shake-up in pod assignments, so their family member is no longer available to meet with them at the visit time for which they’d arrived. The bigger problem for this family: they’d driven over six hours one way to make the visit. The lobby guard, never looking up from her papers, says, “You’ll just have to come back next weekend and try again.”

 

When we talk with the lobby guards, they are harried but unflappable. They’re here day after day shuffling a wide range of visitors through security. The guard explains that there have been significant shake-ups in their systems because of the overall expansion of the detention system. Some detainees are now also housed over at the higher security criminal building, because they’ve run out of beds in the main immigration detention facility. The result is considerable confusion of schedules. “So just always call us at the lobby to confirm your visit.”

We wait in the second lobby and watch cartoons with some children waiting to visit their parents. Finally, we’re admitted into the visitation room itself. This room is full of crude plastic tables modified with plywood barriers to prevent contact between detainees and visitors. Somehow the barriers are supposed to keep detainees and visitors from passing items to each other though it’s unclear how this helps much, or why such contraband wouldn’t be noticed during the very thorough metal detector and pat-down check that happens upon entry.

 

What it does do is isolate detainees even more from their families. Whereas in the past children could visit and sit in the lap of their parent, now with the barriers and the requirement to sit on opposite sides of the table, very little touching or contact can occur other than the initial hugs that happen at arrival and leave-taking.

 

Our detainee/friend arrived in the United States about one year ago from El Salvador. Once across the border, she was abandoned by those facilitating her entry. Caught in the middle of a storm and left on a mountain hillside, she was afraid she would get hypothermia and so walked to the nearest town where she was detained by ICE.

 

We learn right away that this week has been especially hard for her. She’s depressed and having trouble getting out of bed each day. She was recently separated from a friend in her pod because the guards perceived their relationship as too “sentimental.” Apparently it is a regular practice to separate detainees who become emotionally close.

 

Our detainee may identify as a lesbian so she is targeted even more than other detainees. But such separation from a friend based on subjective observations by the guards results in her not wanting to form any new relationships for fear she would get moved or separated again. It’s a traumatizing double-bind.

 

We are visiting Eloy together with Casa Mariposa, a non-profit out of Tucson that visits immigrants in detention, and also owns a transitional house for recently released detainees, especially members of the LGBTQ+ community.

 

Our new friend loves to read books. We talk and laugh about the terrible conclusion to a Nicholas Sparks novel she recently finished. She’d like more books, lots more books, especially novels and books for learning English.

 

She used to lift weights competitively in El Salvador. Her demeanor indicates a mix of embarrassment and pride at this.

 

We talk about how she spends her days. We learn she only gets to sleep from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., because she works in the kitchen, and kitchen duty begins at 2 a.m. Detainees are not allowed to sleep during the day.

 

We learn she’d like to study medicine and become a doctor, or possibly when she gets out work in a field where she can help detainees by visiting them the way we visit her.

 

The hour goes quickly. The guard is not unkind, but he firmly tells us it is time to go. So we do, exchanging hugs on the way out the door. We then return to our colleagues, who have waited in the outer lobby the whole hour, unable to visit anyone. Because “rules.” We walk back out to the van, witness (at a distance, and across multiple barbed wire fences) hundreds of detained immigrants in the yard trying to have their “walking” time, which is really means they are huddled under whatever shade they can find in the courtyard. The sun is blazing. We are in the middle of a desert, after all.

 

We take a group photo at the driveway entrance, near the sign. This feels like the most surreal of moments. What does it mean morally to observe and visit detainees in a place like this? Should the moment be recorded for posterity in such a photo?

 

As we drive back I keep remembering the families that came into the visitation room with us, many arriving with children in tow. Watching those children come in and give their parents such long hugs, realizing this had become normal to them, this separation from their parents, this Sunday morning visitation. The whole of it feels like communal, moral injury. It need not be like this, and so shouldn’t be.

 

And I kept remembering the reports I’d heard from the detainee and the translator, both of whom indicated that although conditions in the detention center weren’t horribly abusive (other than it being an icebox, being forced to work for $1 an hour, and being detained in the first place), they did mention that indigenous Guatemalans housed there also received a lot of verbal abuse from the guards. Because guards. Apparently the guards become frustrated at the indigenous immigrants’ inability to speak Spanish.

 

The drive is long enough, I even begin to reminisce. Like that Talking Heads song, “And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?”

Our LIRS observation team. First day, hoping to bring some love to detainees at Eloy.

The Scapegoat

 

Since 2001, when I returned from Slovakia and global missionary service with my denomination, I’ve been an active volunteer with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Something about that experience of living as a foreigner in Eastern Europe cracked things open for me—the hospitality I experienced, the bureaucratic gauntlet I sometimes had to run, all of it opened a level of empathy for strangers arriving at our shores and borders I’ve never been able to shake.

 

If you can remember that far back, you know then as today refugees were looked upon with suspicion and lumped in with bad actors, as if they were in league with the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center. Even though no refugees were involved in the 9/11 attacks, and even though refugees commit less crime than any other population in the United States, nevertheless one of the first steps taken after 9/11 was to immediately halt (and then subsequently slow) admission of refugees. Wasted security steps focused on the wrong population. Wrong-headed at best, dangerous at worst inasmuch as it gives a false sense of security with its focus on securing the wrong population from entry.

 

We’ve got a story in the bible about this, Leviticus 16:8. It’s about a goat. When the sins of a community become too much, and strife is rampant, the people are commanded to throw their sins on the goat and then cast it out of the community. It’s the ritual of the scapegoat. But the ritual tells us much more about the community enacting the ritual than it does about the goat. The goat remains an unjustly burdened and excommunicated caprine.

 

Immigration and Refugees: A Shifting Landscape for Both

 

During the mid-2000s, as part of my call as a pastor in Wisconsin, I served as an Ambassador with LIRS. I’d set up tables about our work at synod assemblies and church events. I’d speak to women’s groups and mission committees. When Facebook and Twitter were invented, I’d share articles online. And then eventually, in 2009, when refugee resettlement numbers were back up to more humane levels, we started talking about expansion, developing a satellite office in the Madison area. By the time I took a new call and we were moving to Arkansas, many Burmese families had arrived in our community as a part of this refugee resettlement program. To this day I call many of them friends.

 

In 2011, I took a call to serve a congregation in Arkansas. Although historically Arkansas has seen periods of significant refugee arrivals (including a large community of Vietnamese who arrived after the Vietnam war), in the 2000s the only refugees resettled to the state were a small number of family reconnects. So in 2014, energized by the Syrian refugee crisis and called by God to help resettle refugees, we created a non-profit (Canopy NWA), and partnered with LIRS. That same year we began resettling refugees to the state.

 

By 2015, our national cap/target for refugee resettlement was 110,000. You might think that’s a lot of people, until you remember the United States is also large. 110,000 is .02% of the population of our country. From my perspective, given that the global refugee crisis has refugees numbering in the tens of millions, it was and remains our moral responsibility as a nation to receive many more refugees than we currently receive. 110,000 was at least moving back towards meeting that obligation.

 

Then there was the 2016 presidential election.

 

Almost immediately there was the executive order, the Muslim ban and lumped in with it a lesser known but devastating overall halt on refugee resettlement. Then came the legal battles, including a reversal of the ban and a restart of resettlement. Then another halt and restart, and finally in 2017 an executive designation capping refugee resettlement at 50,000. Then there was an intentional slow-down, so by the end of this year (2018), we have only seen around 20,000 refugee arrivals.

 

Finally, here in mid-September, we have an announcement from Mike Pompeo that Donald Trump will cap refugee resettlement at 30,000 for 2019. An historic, tragic, immorally low cap (see graph, historically until Donald Trump’s presidency our nation has never lowered the ceiling below 70,000).

 

That’s all the refugee resettlement side of the work. It’s a needlessly politicized and contested space, when the reality we know on the ground is simpler: refugees fleeing to our country and resettled through UNCHR come to us because of real threat in their home country, and they seek here refuge and a chance to start a new life. Most thrive in their new environment and make us a stronger and more resilient nation as soon as they arrive. We’re a big country with lots of room. We could welcome hundreds of thousands more refugees and have room to spare. What’s more, we have the moral responsibility to do so.

 

However, another part of the work of LIRS hinges around immigrants and asylum seekers. Where refugee resettlement is vetted by UNHCR, and new refugee arrivals come to our country as third country resettlement capped/designated by the executive branch, immigrants and asylum seekers arriving at our borders follow a different process for admissions.

 

It is our national conversation on immigration at the border that is taking up the lion’s share of our attention these days, even though the global refugee crisis is immense. The reality is complicated: we have a moral obligation as a wealthy and large nation to receive refugees arriving through UNHCR, AND we have a moral and legal obligation to consider the asylum claims of all who arrive at our borders. We have the ability and capacity to do both and fund both.

 

However, the strategy of those seeking to limit foreigners (especially foreign nationals of specific nationalities and religions) from coming to the United States will of course be to set the two up against each other. Arguments for mutual exclusivity are distracting and effective. So of course when Mike Pompeo made the announcement about the 30,000 refugee ceiling, he also said, “The United States needed to prioritize hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived at the United States border, claiming a credible fear of returning home, rather than refugees overseas who have already officially qualified as in need of protection and resettlement in another country.“

 

As the NY Times states: “In justifying its policy intention, the administration has pitted those seeking asylum against refugees,” she said. “The administration has the resources it needs to effectively administer both programs, as historic admissions levels prove.”

 

LIRS is called to intentionally and carefully work with these different populations, always with the same goal in mind of recognizing the full humanity of all those who come to us seeking refuge and sanctuary.

A door at Casa Mariposa

The Desert Butterfly

 

After the long drive back from Eloy we arrive in Tucson, passing some enticing Sonoran hot dog food carts en route. Our group plans to tour Casa Mariposa. Casa Mariposais a house for those recently transitioning out of detention. Over the past few years, it has especially focused on housing members of the LGBTQ+ community who were in detention. The house is situated in a neighborhood just outside the downtown, across the bone-dry Santa Cruz river bed and below the Catalina Foothills.

 

Casa Mariposa is currently set up to house four residents in each of the structures on the property, with capacity for more if emergencies arise. The yard and front windows are decorated with symbols and signs of welcome, like Refugees: Tucson Welcomes You, Black Lives Matter, and Standing With Muslims Against Islamophobia and Racism. One whole door is covered in butterflies (Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly).

 

Most of the residents are out at their jobs for the day. The house is minimally air-conditioned, warm but not hot. I can imagine after living in an icebox residents might appreciate moderation.

 

One resident is home working on paperwork. She takes time to greet us. Our tour guide, Rocio, was once a detainee at Eloy. Granted asylum a few years ago, she now coordinates parts of the work of Casa Mariposa and is a prominent activist on behalf of asylum seekers. She is clearly proud of the house and of their work, and has a warm and caring relationship with the resident.

 

That evening we attend a play by the Borderlands Theater company. The play is presented site specifically at Southside Presbyterian Church, the birthplace of the 1980s-era U.S. Sanctuary movement. The play (the first in a trilogy dealing with immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S.) tells the story of Carol and Mica, a lawyer and an advocate who seek to help Salvadorans fleeing civil war process their asylum applications.

 

The border patrol is not friendly to their efforts. Instead of following due process and allowing the immigrants to apply for asylum, they frequently detain new arrivals and deport them immediately back to El Salvador. This doomed many asylum seekers to certain death, but our country at that time had an interest in covering up our complicity in the mess we had created in the region.

 

Carol and Mica enlist the assistance of a Roman Catholic priest and later the pastor of Southside Presbyterian. A lay Quaker leader also becomes involved. So do recently arrived Salvadorans. The play depicts the agonizing, exhausting work involved in protecting the rights of the asylum seekers. Eventually, the pastor and Quaker decide they will need to follow God’s law rather than human law. They bring asylum seekers directly into the United States and offer them sanctuary in the church.

 

I remember John Fife, the pastor of the Presbyterian congregation, as the face of civil disobedience and the sanctuary movement. Because I now serve as a pastor, the Fife portrayal left me thinking vocationally about church and civil disobedience. The play helped me sympathize with the agonizing decisions Fife had to make as he considered the impact of declaring sanctuary for his family and congregational life.

 

At one point, his Quaker friend enters the sanctuary, and says to Fife, “I’m coming to speak truth to power.”

 

Fife replies, “There’s a lot of that going on lately.”

 

Will then says, “If it is between God’s law and human law, we must follow God’s law. We have no other choice.” When Fife tells Will it’s not that easy, Will leaves, adding, “Let me know when you come to your senses.”

 

Fife does in fact eventually come to his senses and leads his congregation in becoming a sanctuary for immigrants. The play concludes with the decision to be a sanctuary church.

 

Soon many other congregations in the Tucson area and then nationally followed suit, giving birth to the sanctuary movement. Many denominations published statements of support, including Lutherans, who in 1984 “Resolved, that The American Lutheran Church at its 1984 General Convention…offer support and encouragement to congregations that have chosen to become refugee sanctuaries.”

 

As I sat in the Kiva (the church’s sanctuary is in the round, modeled after the spaces Puebloans use for religious rituals), I found myself sobbing uncontrollably, for at one point in the play, the sanctuary leaders have organized a Christmas Eve candlelight vigil. Will the Quaker is late, and everyone is worried he might have been arrested at the border. Instead he arrives just in time, a young mother and baby his most recent co-travelers. He introduces them to the gathered congregation, and then proceeds to read the Christmas story aloud from the Gospel of Luke. Rarely has a play so transformed a familiar text from Scripture in the way this moment did for me. I will never read that text the same way again.

 

Following the play, Borderlands Theater hosted a panel discussion on immigration awareness, outlining what Tucson groups are doing to help in the immigrant crisis. This group of women leaders (by contrast, and significantly, I remembered earlier in the day noting that all the wardens at the detention center were men) spoke about their non-profit and organizing work. Our group, having spent the day with Rocio of Casa Mariposa sat near the back and applauded each time Rocio spoke, proud of our new friend.

The play Sanctuary in performance site specifically at Southside Presbyterian in Tucson

Ancient Trees, Young Lives

 

Monday morning, our group traveled back into the desert, this time north of Tucson into the Santa Catalina mountains, our destination a site for unaccompanied minors. Unaccompanied immigrant children apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration officials are transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). According to ORR, “The majority of unaccompanied alien children are cared for through a network of state licensed ORR-funded care providers, most of which are located close to areas where immigration officials apprehend large numbers of aliens.”

 

Our observation mission included visiting one of these state licensed providers.

 

The last mile of dirt road leading up into the Santa Catalina mountains is so narrow, our white van pulls to the side more than once, allowing pickups to pass. Our destination is Sycamore Canyon Academyjust outside of Oracle, Arizona (population 3600). The camp is managed by Rite of Passage, an entity out of Nevada that offers a continuum of care to troubled, at-risk and vulnerable youth.

 

Paul the program manager greets us at the parking lot and welcomes us into the front offices. We spend time introducing ourselves (he checks each name off on his clipboard, a lower key security process than the entry at Eloy), and he gives us some history on the philosophy and founding culture of Rite of Passage. Then we begin our tour.

 

The first thing you notice about Sycamore Canyon Academy are the sycamores. They’re immense, some of them 600 years old or older. These camp facilities, tucked in right next to federal lands, run along this part of the canyon mostly in the shade of the sycamore trees.

 

Our first stop is an interdenominational chapel which they use as a classroom during the week. Three groups of students are at their desks. One group is using an online Google-based resource to study math. A second group is learning social studies and history. A third group is practicing English at a chalk board.

 

So far, all the staff seem incredibly attentive, kind, and mission-focused. Because we had been hearing so much about family separation and unaccompanied minors on the news, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in this site visit, but some aspects of it were quite different than what I had imagined.

 

It may help to know some background.

 

When unaccompanied minors were first housed at Sycamore Canyon Academy, there was a public outcry against it. Those on the right were concerned the unaccompanied minors would be dangerous, a risk to their little community. Those on the left were against housing unaccompanied minors at all, wishing instead for faster or more family-based alternatives to detention. If you look back at news articles from 2014 you see Sycamore Canyon Academy come up frequently in the press.

 

So if you were the staff of this camp, you’d probably develop a certain kind of reaction to public scrutiny, and be somewhat wary of visitors. Or at least, that is what I had anticipated. However, the experience was quite different. The staff was excited to host guests. They had an extensive tour planned, and they were proud of their work. I mean, I’m sure they had prepared the kids for our visit, and coached them on how to behave around visitors, and I’m sure everything was extra clean, but overall the visit made a positive impression.

 

The primary negative about the camp was its remoteness. The children had clean, attractive living quarters and lots of space to play soccer and basketball.

 

There was a clear process in place from time of arrival until they were placed with sponsors.

 

We asked a lot of questions while we were there. The biggest revelation was concerned the length of stay. The director indicated that up until recently, the length of stay for the boys (ages 12-17) was around 21 days if they had identified a parent to whom they could be released, closer to 35 days if they were being released to a sponsor like an aunt or uncle, and closer to sixty days if the sponsor was a more distant relative. But because of new regulations for fingerprinting of sponsors, there had been a dramatic slow-down and the boys were staying much longer at the camp than previously.

 

The other half of the camp serves a completely different population. It is a residential treatment facility for young men. This mixing of populations was also present at Eloy. The immigrant population is regularly mixed in with other populations whose needs and reasons for institutionalization are different. Although both populations are definitely in need of services, bringing such populations together inevitably blends the type of care provided to both, in a way that confuses asylum-seekers and their needs with criminal populations and their needs.

 

On the other hand, many left-leaning critics of such institutionalization may not understand that these unaccompanied minors arrived in our country unaccompanied. It’s appropriate and good that we made lots of noise about separation of families. But the majority of youth do not arrive at the border with their families. The separation happens prior to arrival. Given that reality and given the large number of unaccompanied minors arriving at our border, it is appropriate to put in place a care-focused system that protects youth and ensures they make their way to safe, appropriate sponsors.

 

In other words, we can’t do without such facilities. The more important focus should be on creating the best and most caring contexts to house unaccompanied minors while we expeditiously get them connected with family or caring adults.

 

Towards the end of our visit, Paul mentioned this was their first real outside group tour of the facility. I found this astounding. Given all the appropriate noise about family separation and unaccompanied minors, why hadn’t more groups visited? Paul said that although he had frequently had groups say they were going to come out, they all cancelled, stating their previous trips to Eloy and other locations had consumed too much time, and they just couldn’t find time to make it all the way out to Sycamore Canyon.

 

Admittedly, it really was quite a drive out there. But the lack of outside visits indicates a laziness on the part of advocates. The result: unaccompanied minor camps are mostly unobserved, unknown and disconnected from community.

 

Not all shelters are the same, and some are less open to visits from outside. In fact, unlike Sycamore Canyon, which had many internal controls in place for quality of care and was quite open to a scheduled visit from LIRS, another shelter in Tucson, Southwest Key, recently had its license for holding migrant children revoked after it failed to prove it complies with background check requirements. Not just coincidentally, Southwest Key also happens to have denied repeated requests from LIRS to visit their facilities.

 

Regardless, the politicization of immigration and in particular unaccompanied minor immigration has left such populations even more isolated than they otherwise might be. The fault of this lies with the left as much as the right, and a third way is needed.

Sycamore Canyon Academy near Oracle, Arizona… currently 48 unaccompanied minors are sheltered here

Legal Aid and Sanctuary

 

After our visit to Sycamore Canyon, our team returned to Tucson for visits with two immigrant advocacy groups. First, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which is “the only organization in Arizona that provides free legal and social services to detained men, women, and children under threat of deportation.”

 

The day we were out at Eloy, I was able to take a look at the list of approved visits to Eloy over the previous week. Many were contractors and construction crews, clearly there to maintain the building. Then, Casa Mariposa was listed. But the most frequently approved visitors came through the Florence Project. These lawyers give their time, they give it freely, and they give it frequently.

 

After the Florence Project, our team visited with AmyBeth Willis of the Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition. This “New Sanctuary” movement, birthed out of the original sanctuary movement of the 80s, has over time expanded to encompass a wider range of issues, but remains focused on the specific building community around the kind of sanctuary offered by churches to immigrants.

 

“As people of faith and people of conscience, we pledge to resist the new Administration’s policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, and discriminate against marginalized communities. We will open our congregations and communities as sanctuary spaces for those targeted by hate, and work alongside our friends, families and neighbors to ensure the dignity and human rights of all people—Sanctuary Pledge 2016”

 

For the New Sanctuary movement, sanctuary is something extended in physical places of worship, but also in the streets, on campuses, cities, counties and states, and more generally everywhere, ensuring safety and freedom for immigrants and asylum seekers. I especially love their fourfold definition. Sanctuary is a:

Response to raids, detentions, deportations, and the criminalization of immigrants

Strategy to fight individual cases of deportation, to advocate for an end to mass detention and deportation to amplify the voices of immigrants

Vision for what our communities and world can be

Moral imperative to take prophetic action, of radical hospitality, rooted in the ancient traditions of our faith communities.

What Can We Do?

 

On the flight home after these meetings, I confess I ended up in a kind of exhausted stupor. So much of this system seems so big, it’s difficult to know how to act. I felt morally traumatized simply by witnessing the punitive, degrading, dehumanizing nature of our detention system. It’s alarming to visit maximum security protocols enacted on a population that has really demonstrated no risk of violence at all. And as a parent, it’s dispiriting to encounter so many children separated from family and loved ones as they seek asylum in our country, and realize we are prioritizing supposed security needs of our own nation over the developmental needs of the children.

 

I believe expanding networks of sanctuary will be the most effective way to respond, strategize, vision, and center ourselves in the moral imperatives moving forward. But still I felt some despair: what can we do?

 

All of this takes me to life back in Arkansas. I’m out on the soccer fields between games, catching up on the news in one hand while carrying the bag of balls to the next field. I know, as the coach I should have my mind fully in game mode, but the visits of the past weekend are still capturing my heart. The headline reads: “ICE Arrested Undocumented Immigrants Who Came Forward To Take In Undocumented Children.” When the CNN article pops up, my first response becomes: “That’s messed up.” Actually, my internal language is more colorful and harsh.

 

My next response is then, “Of course they’re doing that.” Since it is this administration’s highest priority to send asylum seekers back to the dangers of the places they have fled, of course they would use suffering children as bait to trap parents and loving relatives.

 

Making the visits has both raised my awareness and turned me more cynical. Welcome to life after you realize we are living in an increasingly carcerial state.

 

Try to place yourself in the shoes of the undocumented immigrants and their children. Take this simple outline and imagine yourself through it. Your home, the place you and your ancestors have lived for generations, becomes so dangerous you decide your only option is to flee. You put together whatever resources you can muster, and begin the long journey, across multiple countries, to a place of greater security, and hopefully opportunity.

 

In order to get to safety, you have to follow carefully circumscribed paths. Often, you receive recommendations on the best way to get to safety. Sometimes this includes trusting your children to the care of others for a time. You get into the country. Your son comes across the border later, only to be detained by ICE. You learn he’s held at a shelter, and all you need to do is go in for finger-printing, identify yourself as the parent, and you can be reunited with your child.

 

However, you know what detention is like. You know the many nefarious ways ICE operates, how it treats undocumented immigrants. You’ve never been given a fair hearing for your asylum claims, and you figure you never will. So if you go in, get finger-printed, you might be detained yourself, then deported, while your child remains here.

 

So what do you do? How can you decide? Leave your child in the shelter and hope that eventually you can circumvent the system and be reunited. Or come forward to take in your undocumented child, and risk further, even permanent separation.

 

And what if all your suspicions and worries are confirmed? The country you thought would offer refuge and safety really is separating families, really is permanently separating families from each other.

 

What will you do?

 

Or for you, dear reader. You learn your country is doing this to asylees. You may be a person of faith, in which case you know one of the most frequently repeatd injunctions in all of Scripture is there to protect the refugee, and to remind the people of God that they were once sojourners, so empathize with those who seek asylum.

 

“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner” (Deuteronomy 27:19).

 

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

 

We’re hitting the wrong targets, and missing the right ones. We’re filling detainee beds while failing to meet our refugee admissions goals. We are letting our borders define us.

 

But at least for people in my own faith tradition, we believe Christ is at the center, not our borders. So recentering in Christ will mean a new beginning, treating immigrants as neighbors to love, not scapegoats to expel.

 

It is our responsibility to do this, so no parent tomorrow ever has to make the decision we’re forcing on undocumented parents today. As I make my next drive to LaSale Detention Center in Louisiana to visit a parishioner, I’ll be praying no parent has to again. Heaven knows I’ll have time.

 

LIRS Advocacy Talking Points

What follows are excerpts from LIRS resources that can help advocates:

LIRS is deeply concerned about our nation’s immigration detention practices, including the lack of judicial review and the arbitrary and often prolonged or idefinite detention of migrants who most need our welcome and protection, such as survivors of torture, refugees, asylum-seekers, and other individuals who fear persecution and torture if removed from the U.S.

 

U.S. immigration enforcement policy should never violate human dignity and/or human rights. These individuals and families have braved treacherous journeys to flee violence and crime in Central America and must be treated fairly and in ways that exemplify American values of offering protection.

 

We reject the premise that it is in America’s interest to incarcerate families. Our faith compels us to speak out and to act in ways that demonstrate God’s love for all people.

 

Indefinite family detention is a threat to family values and human dignity and ignores the fundamental principles of family unity that calls for individuals to be placed in the least restrictive setting and the right to expeditious processing

 

Immigration detention should not be used as a deterrence strategy—for individuals or families. DHS should use other tools besides detention to mitigate the flight risk where there is a demonstrated concern.

 

ICE should deprioritize the detention of immigrants without criminal records and move those immigrants into alternatives to detention (ATD) programs. Instead, ICE should focus their time and resources on detaining human traffickers or violent criminals who pose a risk to our communities.

 

The U.S. government should end the practice of family detention except in exceptional circumstances. Instead, families should be released into less restrictive custody setting or community-based alternative to detention. Where an individualized assessment demonstrates that a family poses a flight risk, DHS should turn to community based alternatives to detention (ATD)—not detention—to mitigate that risk.

 

Immigrants—both individuals and families—must be afforded a fair day in court and due process at the border, without being detained and subjected to fast-track deportation processes. They should also have access to government-funded counsel in immigration court.

 

All families should be placed in full hearings before an immigration judge under section 240 of the Immigration and Nationality Act—an essential due process safeguard against deporting mothers and children to violence and persecution.

 

The administration should seek solutions that uphold family values, due process, and the rights and dignity of the women and children whose lives are at risk.

 

Congress should:

Repeal or reform mandatory detention laws;

End the appropriations mandate that 51,000 beds be filled each day;

Increase appropriations for community-based alternatives to detention

 

The administration should:

Expand the use of community-based alternatives to detention.

Create and implement policies and regulations that avoid detention unless legally necessary.

Ensure that detention is only used in cases when the U.S. government has proven that none of the less restrictive alternatives is appropriate.

 

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