Columbans who assisted undocumented mothers and children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last summer are celebrating the first step toward the end of family detention. This inhumane practice is not only against the teachings of our faith to welcome the stranger and create an option for the poor and vulnerable, but it violates international and domestic laws requiring more robust screening and protection for refugees.
On July 24, Judge Gee of the Central District Court of California ruled that the facilities being used to detain migrant mothers and their children (mostly from Central America) are in violation of national standards set in the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement regarding the detention, release, and treatment of all children in immigration detention, and underscores the principle of family unity. Judge Gee has ordered that the mothers and children be released and has given the administration until August 3 to respond. (As of writing this article, the administration has not yet responded.)
This decision not only labels these detention centers as inappropriate settings for children, but validates claims of insufficient medical care, psychological care, meals, and questionable treatment by some personnel. Columban Center of Advocacy and Outreach Director, Scott Wright, joined faith leaders in praising Judge Gee’s decision, saying, “We are heartened by the judge’s decision to end the policy of detaining immigrant women and children. A policy that blames women and children for fleeing violence, places them in detention, and then expedites their deportation directly contradicts our values as people of faith and a nation of immigrants.”
On July 28, some members of Congress who visited the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, hosted a forum that highlighted concerns with these facilities, inviting experts on the issue to testify. Two mothers who had been detained shared heart-wrenching stories about their time in the facilities located in Karnes, Texas and Burkes, Pennsylvania. They spoke of the fear, confusion, and uncertainty they felt while detained. Even more upsetting were the stories of their children demonstrating obvious signs of physical and mental distress, and the poor response and lack of concern from detention center staff.
Dr. Olivia Lopez, a former social worker at the Karnes facility, spoke about what she witnessed there, describing some treatment as tantamount to “abuse,” especially when children were separated from their mothers for arbitrary reasons.
We continue to stand in solidarity with these families and pray for an end to family detention. We support the use of community-based alternatives to detention that already exist. Social workers from community organizations such as Catholic Charities already do vouch for undocumented persons and assure his/her appearance at court hearings. Community-based alternatives are a more appropriate setting for families, more appropriate too for this kind of civil offense, and more cost-effective. Until we can respond humanely to the many problems facing people living in danger within their home countries, we must act as we are called by our faith, with compassion and care.
Let us remember our call to bring light to the afflicted, and urge our elected officials to end the practice of family detention. “If you lavish your food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall become like midday.” (Isaiah: 58:10)