Earlier this year, I toured the U.S. government’s family immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas with a delegation of Roman Catholic and Lutheran faith leaders. It was a difficult and deeply moving day. Family immigration detention centers incarcerate immigrant mothers and children, many of whom fled Central America for their lives. More than 90 percent of these families suffered sexual, domestic, or physical violence, had their lives threatened by gangs, or experienced similar traumas. These are not threats or abuses to be taken lightly. When migrants who suffer these threats are deported, they are often targeted and killed upon return to their home country.
Nevertheless, the United States welcomes these families seeking safety with incarceration. They are frequently jailed for months, with little knowledge of their term length or if they will be deported. In detention, as basic possessions as their shoelaces are taken away. Children often lose weight. Mothers and children are isolated for punishment; infants are baptized in an ad-hoc fashion. Currently, more than 1,000 mothers and children are detained in detention centers. The government is planning to expand this number to 3,700.
After firm but persistent cajoling during our tour of the Dilley center, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials permitted us to speak with some of the women. Every single mother we spoke with erupted in tears. They told us their heartfelt stories of fear, courage, resilience, hope, and despair. We prayed together in a group, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas-Louisiana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America summed up the experience by saying, "It was tears, tears, tears."
What is clear to me is that there is no humane way to detain families. The average age of children in detention is only six years old and there are many infants and toddlers. They do not belong in jails — nor do their mothers, who have only acted to protect their lives. Detention is inherently traumatic and damaging, especially for people who have fled persecution and violence in search of safety.
To secure their chance at a better life, families must obtain asylum. For mothers in detention, this often means telling and retelling their stories to volunteer attorneys. But there is no daycare for their children, so children are often subjected to hearing traumatic stories repeated over and over again. One mother decided to flee with her son after a gang threatened their lives. She had suffered horrendous abuses, but only decided to leave her home when her son’s life was threatened. In detention, her son — only a few years old — re-lived the danger as his mother told their story time and time again for her asylum proceedings. Re-traumatized, he would wake up in the middle of screaming, "There’s blood everywhere! They’re trying to kill us!"
As I toured Dilley that day, I couldn’t help but think of Hebrews 13:2-3: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering."
These families are a blessing, and by welcoming and protecting them, we not only live in to God’s call to welcome the stranger, but we gain their gifts, vitality, and become a stronger nation.
On the same day as the Dilley tour, we sent a letter to President Obama — signed by over 80 faith leaders — calling for an end to family detention. I hope President Obama takes this message to heart, because we will not rest until there is justice and family detention has ended.
Linda Hartke is President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.