It’s been a year since more than 70,000 Central American families crossed the border into the United States seeking asylum. The federal government was not prepared to accommodate such a large number of mostly women and children. In many cases, the families were shuttled across the borders unable to speak the language and navigate their way through a complicated legal process.
As government officials scrambled to get their arms around the situation and begin the legal process, mothers and children were detained in three Texas facilities. Faith-based groups including a number of Presbyterian congregations have devoted time and effort to assist families either in the detention centers or along their way to seek a new life.
Recently a U.S. District Judge ruled that detaining the families is illegal, a move that comes as great news for faith leaders concerned about long-term detention. A press release from faith leaders is included here in its entirety.
Faith Leaders Celebrate Court Decision on Family Detention;
Call for Administration to Comply
Late on Friday, July 24, 2015, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the Obama Administration’s practice of detaining immigrant families violates the 1997 settlement in Flores v. Meese and all families, excluding those who pose a flight or national security risk, must be released as soon as possible.
The Flores settlement set guidelines for the detention of unaccompanied migrant children: if they are detained, they should be held in the least restrictive environment possible, cared for by licensed professionals. Judge Gee ruled that the settlement also applies to children detained with their mothers. She has given the federal government until August 3, 2015 to respond, or she will implement measures to enforce her ruling. Over the past two months the federal government and the plaintiffs have failed repeatedly to reach an agreement.
In response to the influx of almost 70,000 Central American families seeking asylum last year, the federal government began to detain mothers and children en masse in three dedicated facilities – Karnes City, Texas; Dilley, Texas; and Berks County, Pennsylvania. Since June 2014, 6,300 mothers and children have been booked into a family detention center. Currently, 1,700 mothers and children are being detained, even after Department of Homeland Security began their release of some mothers and children who have demonstrated a credible fear of returning to their country. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, 88% of recently detained mothers have passed screenings for credible fear of return to their countries of origin.
The challenge to family detention came from counsel on behalf of several detained mothers. DHS responded with disappointment in the ruling, maintaining the government’s need for detention as a means of responding to mass influxes of immigrants at the border, such as the surge last summer.
Advocates, including dozens of faith groups, rejoice in Judge Gee’s ruling and plea for the Obama administration and DHS to comply. They will continue to push for the decisive end to this inhumane and immoral practice.
Read faith leader statements below.
“I applaud the July 24, 2015, ruling by Federal Judge Dolly Gee, joining the chorus denouncing family detention, reaffirming that migrant children must be released to foster care or relatives and placed in the least restrictive environment possible. Her ruling echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call to seek to “correct oppression” (Is. 1:17) and enables our nation to better “speak out in defense of the poor” (Prov. 31:8-9).
Family detention exacerbates the trauma families have already experienced, profits prison companies, isolates legitimate asylum seekers from services, and constrains hope that liberty might ever be found. Judge Gee’s order instructs the administration to develop a plan to release the mothers and children “without unnecessary delay.” I strongly urge the administration not to appeal Judge Gee’s decision. It is not illegal to seek asylum, and mothers and children should not be treated like prisoners. Around the U.S., our members have stood with faith partners in ditches outside centers to pray, have signed letters, visited legislators and White House staff, provided education, and made calls to build momentum for mercy and to say resoundingly that family detention is immoral. Our prayer is that it will end.”
The Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. and Canada
“Church World Service applauds Judge Gee’s ruling. The criminalization and detention of families seeking asylum and refuge is a moral stain on our nation. Our country has a moral and legal obligation to respect asylum and protection laws. CWS will continue to advocate for the immediate release of families held in detention centers and the reduction in the overall use of detention”
The Rev. John L. McCullough, President and CEO of Church World Service
“We are heartened by the judge’s decision to end the policy of detaining immigrant women and children. A policy that blames women and children for fleeing violence, puts them in detention, and then expedites their deportation directly contradicts our values as people of faith and a nation of immigrants.”
Scott Wright, Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
"We commend U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee for her wisdom and justice in the Flores ruling that is consistent with Catholic Social Justice Teaching and highlights this country’s commitment to life, our concern for the most vulnerable, and our steadfast allegiance to dignity for all. This decision enlivens the truth of Pope Francis’ statement, “No cell is so isolated as to exclude the Lord, none. He is there, ... His paternal and maternal love reaches everywhere.” (Pope Francis, Vatican City, Audience for National Congress of Italian Prison Chaplains, 10/23/2013.) We commit our prayers and resources to oppose future appeals to this decision."
Sr. Louise Gallahue, DC, Visitatrix of the Daughters of Charity of the Province of St. Louise
“Our faith compels us to seek a complete end to the failed policy of family detention. We urge the administration not to appeal Judge Gee’s ruling that detaining children violates U.S. law. The administration should cease allowing private prisons to profit off of jailing children. We must instead whole-heartedly turn towards community-based alternatives that both keep families together and answer to that of God in the women and children seeking refuge.”
Diane Randall, Executive Secretary for the Friends Committee on National Legislation
“Our Jewish values and history call us to protect life and to love the stranger. As American Jews, we must work to ensure that anyone who reaches our border is afforded safety and dealt with fairly. This ruling confirms that the U.S. government is not living up to its obligation of ensuring the proper care of children in its custody. The Jewish community has long supported policies that promote human rights and ensure the protection of children. We must continue to press our government to live up to these ideals.”
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, Vice President for Community Engagement at HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.
“The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) welcomes the recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee which we trust will put an end to the detention of immigrant children and their mothers. We urge President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to implement the court’s finding as rapidly as possible. We continue to be concerned about the failure of our present immigration system to treat all with the dignity and respect that is their God-given right.”
Executive Director, Sister Joan Marie Steadman, CSC
“We welcome the Judge’s ruling that no child belongs in a secure and unlicensed detention facility and strongly agree that parents should be released together with their children whenever possible. No child or family belongs in jail. Lutherans, and people of faith in communities all across America, stand ready to welcome and embrace our new neighbors as they are released from family detention facilities.”
Linda Hartke, CEO and President, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
“The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd applauds Judge Gee's ruling that condemns the incarceration of women and children. We hope the Obama administration will abide by her wise and compassionate decision and not appeal. These incarcerated women and children have suffered enough.”
Lawrence Couch, Director of the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
“We at NETWORK welcome the US District Court ruling that hopefully begins the end of family detention of undocumented immigrants. The Court recognizes the reality that we have been advocating as common sense: children and their mothers do not belong in prison-like settings. We are extremely grateful to Judge Dolly Gee for helping to ensure that children and their mothers will now await their asylum hearings in safe surroundings and not in custody. We urge the Administration to put families first by not appealing this decision. “
Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, Director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
“So many in the faith community have been praying for something, such as Judge Gee's ruling, to advance the movement to end family detention. Today, we rejoice and continue to pray that the government will not appeal this decision and that, soon, thousands of asylum-seeking mothers and children will be freed.”
The Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
"The Sisters of Mercy celebrate Judge Dolly Gee's ruling on family detention. We ask the Obama administration to take immediate actions to end the shameful policy of incarcerating refugee women and children. President Obama's decision to appeal the ruling or comply with Judge Gee's findings will determine his legacy on immigration, as much as his fight for comprehensive immigration reform and deferred action."
Sr. Patricia McDermott, President of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
"The court decision is a striking affirmation in defense of vulnerable Central American children and mothers and on behalf of the rights of asylum-seekers widely. We urge the Obama administration not to appeal the court's ruling, but to embrace it, to abide by it — and to immediately release all mothers and children now being held, so they can await their asylum hearings in compliance, yet in the safety and freedom they've been denied.
It is time to close the door on this painful and shameful policy. Not jailing children and mothers is a legacy that befits the President."
The Rev. William Schulz, President and Chief Executive Officer, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
“United Methodist Women members have been actively engaged in efforts to end family detention: marching outside the detention center in Dilley, Texas; using social media; sending postcards to President Obama; and sharing and mobilizing at Mission u events across the country. United Methodist Women celebrates this legal victory and urges the administration not to appeal this ruling. Mothers and children should be released from detention immediately. Furthermore, release from detention should not entail separating mothers and children; demanding exorbitant bonds; forcing mothers to wear GPS monitoring devices; or expediting the deportation of mothers and children. We seek a policy that guarantees due process for all including appeals on deportation orders, and which ends all family detention without an undue burden on families that have suffered more than enough.”
Harriett Jane Olson, General Secretary and CEO, United Methodist Women
For more information and background on immigration and family detention and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s involvement, please visit the following links: