U.S. Bishops Decry Forced Detention of Immigrant Families

by Katie Daniels


Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders are criticizing the U.S. government’s policy of placing women and children fleeing persecution in their Central American home countries in family detention centers. San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller has denounced the practice of detention as both a burden on the families and a stain on the moral fabric of society, claiming it violates social teaching and the dignity of the person.

“Why do we feel compelled to place in detention such vulnerable individuals—traumatized young mothers and children fleeing persecution in their home countries?” the Archbishop said in a statement after he visited a detention center for immigrant families in Dilly, Texas. 


Since 2014, 60,000 migrant families have left their homes in Central America, often fleeing death threats, rape, and gang violence. Women and children are detained separately from men and unaccompanied minors. Originally there was one detention center for families, a facility in Pennsylvania with only 85 beds. To cope with the influx of migrant families seeking asylum in the U.S., the government opened new centers in New Mexico and Texas. The entire family detention center network costs approximately $2 billion in taxpayer money per year.


According to asylum law, border agents who apprehend migrants are required to ask if they are afraid of returning to their home countries. If the migrants answer yes, they are detained and interviewed by an immigration officer to determine if the fear is legitimate. Once an officer determines they have a credible fear, then a migrant can petition for asylum from “a well-founded fear of persecution” based on qualifiers like race, religion, nationality, political opinion.  


Yet the chances of a court granting that asylum are slim. Statistics from 2012 reveal that only 2,888 migrants facing deportation received asylum, or about 34% of cases heard nationwide. While many Central American migrants cite fear of gang violence and extortion as their motivation for fleeing their home country, most immigration courts do not recognize these fears as grounds for asylum.


This past February, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered a preliminary injunction to halt the practice of detaining families for deterrence purposes, arguing the case on behalf of the families who do leave their homeland because of legitimate fear of persecution. The auxiliary bishop of Seattle, Eusebio Elizondo Almaguer, criticized the detention method as a low point in immigration policy: “The detention of families serves no purpose and undermines due process. It especially harms children, who experience emotional and psychological harm from detention.”


For the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, another concern over detention centers is the possibility that they could act as a form of migrant deterrence, which would violate international law. Bishop James Tamayo of Laredo, TX suggested seeking more humane ways to deal with the rise of immigrant families crossing into the U.S. He offered the Church’s help and encouraged the government to adopt new policies. “The government should consider placing these families in humane alternatives to detention, where they could live in the community and access needed services, including legal representation.”


Archbishop of Louisville, KY and president of the USCCB Joseph E. Kurtz has joined with Christian leaders such as Lutheran bishops Michael Rinehart and H. Julian Gordy to implore government officials to end the abuse. In a November 20th statement, Kurtz said: “There is an urgent pastoral need for a more humane view of immigrants and a legal process that respects each person’s dignity, protects human rights, and upholds the rule of law.”


“As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, said so eloquently, ‘Every human being is a child of God! He or she bears the image of Christ! We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected, and loved.’”

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