By Maria-Jose Soerens 9-16-2016 | Series:

I was listening to Claudia* as she was telling me about an experience she had while in solitary confinement. Outside her cell the guard was making fun of her by using pieces of her traumatic story. Inside Claudia wailed on the floor, helpless, until she felt — and she said this with disarming certainty — Jesus’ hand patting her on the back whispering, “You are going to be OK; you are going to be OK.”

Claudia’s words were challenging — not so much because she claimed that Jesus showed up at her cell, but because of the implications that such scene carries for the church. If we take Claudia’s experience as a gift, we have to wrestle with the following question: What does it mean that Jesus himself is showing up for brothers and sisters imprisoned in privately run detention facilities?

On the one hand it means that the Spirit is engaged in an irresistible grassroots movement of liberation. But it also speaks of how lonely our brothers and sisters are and how much they need our help.

I happened learned about immigrant detentions years ago through my work, and I have never been the same as a result. I can tell you that my first response was confusion. Our first responses to state-sponsored violence tend to be that way. We want to believe we can trust our systems; we tend to normalize oppression because we fear the evil we may find if we actually look at it and understand the way it works. Staying comfortable seems much more appealing. The first response of the American public to Nazi concentration camps was not outrage and solidarity, but disbelief.

So I need to tell you, church, that response is just unacceptable. This is the time to act boldly.

Four weeks ago many of us celebrated the news that the Department of Justice plans to end its use of for-profit prisons. But we then had to wrestle with the fact that this means nothing for migrant detention, which is the largest supplier of prison contracts for GEO and CCA — the top two corporations behind for-profit detention of immigrants of all ages: from babies to the elderly.

The immigration movement quickly took action and pushed for the Department of Homeland Security to follow suit and end its use of private companies. DHS responded by announcing a “review” of the issue. Well, we know what they already know: Private detention of immigrants is unconstitutional; GEO and CCA repeatedly violate basic human rights standards; it does not serve the public interest; and it is a waste of tax-payers’ money (about $2 billion a year — same amount needed for universal childcare, to give you perspective). As Carl Takei from the ACLU sharply observed, “No review necessary.”

But if we close 62 detention centers, then what?

While there are signs that the federal government is finally acknowledging that privately run prisons are problematic, officials still don’t acknowledge they have a “prison problem.” Thus, the debates at DHS are rapidly headed to “Well, if they are not detained in private facilities, how can the government manage the detention?”

We cannot shift private detention to government detention. The answer is to implement alternatives, but we are dealing with a terrible lack of imagination from the government, and the forces of oppression against people of color are strong.

The element currently missing in DHS’ alternatives is one with which the church is uniquely positioned to respond: community support. A special report from the American Immigration Council shows how community-based alternatives to detention are much more effective in helping asylum seekers and immigrants in general comply with the legal process. Community-based alternatives foster access to legal assistance and avoid the serious damaging effects of detention for the mental health of detainees, their families, and the fabric of the community as a whole.

As DHS “reviews” its use of private companies, we are called to use our voice and advocate for the end of migrant detention and the implementation of community-based alternatives. Furthermore, we must work tirelessly to use our collective resources in the implementation of such alternatives. This is not going to be easy — but as Dolores Huerta from the Farm Worker’s Movement so prophetically said, “Si, Se Puede!”

Let us write an alternative story.

For more information, see the ACLU’s fact sheet on alternatives to detention and suggestions from the Immigrant Justice Center .

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Maria-Jose “Coté” Soerens is the founding executive director of Puentes, an immigrant-led organization mobilizing mental health resources for immigration justice.

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