Faith leaders, including the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and human rights activists are celebrating a report released Friday by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers (ACFRC) that could end the detention of families seeking asylum in the United States.
The committee was established in June 2015 to review DHS family detention centers and give advice and recommendations to the department about the operation of these facilities.
“Jesus said, ‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ In saying this, he acknowledged the deep connection between children’s health and the context in which they live,” said the Reverend Dr. J. Hebert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA). “This report affirms what we have known for a long time, that families and children seeking safety in the U.S. should not be imprisoned. Prisons are not healthy communities for children.”
In 2014 families began arriving at the U.S southern border in numbers never seen before. These families from Central America, overwhelmingly meeting the initial legal standard for seeking asylum, believed they would receive protection in the U.S. The U.S. government, while acknowledging that this was a humanitarian crisis, reacted by creating three new prisons, two of which are privately run, to house families seeking asylum and other forms of immigration protection.
Communities of faith and human rights organizations decried family detention. Under international agreements asylum-seekers are not to be penalized for seeking protection within a nation’s borders. Detention made it difficult for families to access counsel, creating due process concerns.
“The detention of asylum-seekers, especially families, flies in the face of law, policy and our understanding of ourselves as global neighbors,” said Teresa Waggener of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Immigration Issues. “Faith communities and activists know this and have been advocating for the end of this practice.”
The PC(USA) has been in the center of this crisis from the beginning. Congregations in Texas organized and serve as Christ’s hands and feet by visiting families in detention and, when released, meeting them at the bus station to provide for their basic needs as they journey to their next destination. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has been walking alongside emerging outreach ministries, like the one in Texas, providing resources and guidance.
“It is through these simple acts of compassion that Presbyterians share God’s love and learn first hand about the many difficulties that these families have gone through in search of safety for their children,” said Susan Krehbiel of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
The denomination’s Office of the General Assembly visited two facilities in May of 2015 and created a film and resources to inform Presbyterians about this practice and how to advocate for an end to family detention.
“We feared that if we did not lift up the stories of these families, what they suffered in their home countries, and what they suffered once they arrived in the U.S., that their detention would serve to permanently silence their stories,” said Waggener. “We were determined to make sure the faith community knew and were empowered to act.”
The ACFRC report and it’s recommendation to end family detention inspires hope for asylum-seeking families and the faith and community leaders who have advocated for their human rights, but it is up to the Obama Administration to act upon the recommendations.
“As we witness the worst display of our politics being broadcast across the world, this is an opportune time for our political leaders in Washington, D.C., to counter their failures by acting upon this issue that will emancipate families and children who are captive to a policy that should have never been implemented,” Nelson said.