by Tammy Alexander
Recent headlines speak of a “European migration crisis” and a “U.S. border crisis.” Politicians declare that efforts to stop migration are “urgent”—an “emergency.” Putting the focus on the “burden” of wealthy countries, however, rather than on the needs of refugees, negates the responsibility we have to offer a helping hand to those fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.
Both the Old and New Testament offer clear guidance on how to treat such refugees. In Deuteronomy 24:18-22, the Israelites are instructed to leave a bit of the harvest in the field for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus is clear that we will be judged on how we treat the immigrant, the sick, the poor.
Last year, the U.S. saw an increase in the number of women and children from Central America seeking refuge (136,000, or, less than 0.05 percent of the U.S. population). Thousands have been placed in two new family detention facilities in Karnes City, Texas, and Dilley, Texas. Both are run by for-profit prison companies, staffed by former prison guards, and are not licensed to hold children (the latter point is the subject of a pending lawsuit seeking to close both centers).
It is costing taxpayers far more to detain the mothers and children ($266/day per person) than it would to release them while they apply for asylum, as the vast majority have family in the U.S. Some refer to this migration as “illegal,” but, as asylum seekers, they are doing what is required under the law: presenting themselves at the border and requesting asylum.
Their detention in prison-like conditions not only violates international law, it is nothing short of appalling. Reports from lawyers and the few others who have access to the facilities tell of intimidation from guards and threats to separate children from their mothers if they don’t behave. Children must stay close to their mothers at all times and are not allowed to run and scream as children normally do.
Families report spoiled food and contaminated water (both Karnes and Dilley sit on major fracking sites). Mothers buy bottled water for $3/gallon – one day’s pay for working various jobs. One 8-year-old boy who weighed 60 pounds when he arrived in the U.S. lost 20 pounds in detention. Another report said mothers and children were losing weight so severely that their hair was coming out in chunks.
Given these conditions, it is not surprising that, just before Easter, 78 women participated in a hunger strike at Karnes to protest harsh conditions. Many of these mothers have survived domestic violence, rape, and death threats. Children have seen relatives and classmates killed. Being held in detention is only adding to their trauma. Unless something is done, many of these families could languish in detention for years.
Numerous organizations and members of Congress are calling for an end to the shameful practice of family detention. Add your voice to the chorus. Urge President Obama to set these mothers and children free today.
Peace on the Hill is a monthly column in PeaceSigns written by staff of the MCC Washington Office highlighting domestic and international issues and detailing ways the church can be engaged in the work of peace and advocacy to elected leaders.