February 5, 2013 STATEMENT – LIRS Statement for Hearing: “America’s Immigration System: Opportunities for Legal Immigration and Enforcement of Laws Against Illegal Immigration”

Press Contact: Jon Pattee, LIRS Assistant Director for Media Relations
202-591-5778, jpattee@lirs.org

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the national agency established by Lutheran churches in the United States to serve uprooted people, is pleased by Congressional and Administrative efforts to draft and enact comprehensive immigration reform. People of faith have long called for an immigration system that prioritizes family unity and is grounded in humanitarian principles.

As this committee and others begin work on immigration reform legislation, LIRS offers our support for legislation adhering to the following five principles for reform:

  • Providing an earned pathway to lawful permanent residency and eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their families.
  • Ensuring the humane and just enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, specifically by reducing the use of immigration detention and expanding the use of community support programs for immigrants who do not need to be detained.
  • Protecting families from separation and ensure an adequate supply of visas for families seeking to reunite.
  • Providing adequate resources and protections to ensure the successful integration of refugees, asylees, survivors of torture and trafficking, unaccompanied minors, and other vulnerable migrants.
  • Ensuring the protection of U.S. citizen and migrant workers.

Family-Based Immigration System

LIRS strongly believes that a reformed immigration system must improve family unity. Family is the cornerstone of our faith and the grounding structure of our society. Comprehensive immigration reform must uphold the importance of families to our congregations and communities by including meaningful reforms to the family-based immigration system.

LIRS and Lutherans all over America wholeheartedly agree on the need for an improvement of the immigration process for families. The current family visa system forces too many families to endure years of separation from their loved ones. For some families who filed a visa petition before June 1, 1989, backlogs have forced them to wait over 23 years to begin the application process. [1] They will finally be able to do so in February 2013. Any reform of our immigration system must reduce these backlogs and improve mechanisms for family members to reunite with relatives in the United States.

LIRS and Lutherans all across this country will be lifting up our voices and  engaging lawmakers from both parties to answer the president’s call for fair and compassionate immigration reform that is both business and family friendly,” said LIRS President and CEO Linda Hartke.

Immigration Enforcement

As Congress has deliberated on how to reform America’s immigration laws for decades, enforcement of current laws has exponentially expanded. When adjusted for inflation, the government spends 15 times as much on immigration enforcement today ($17.9 billion) as it did in 1986 ($1.2 billion).[2]

Since the last serious debate on immigration reform in 2007, the budget for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) detention and removal operations has grown from $1.984 billion to $2.75 billion.[3],[4] In fiscal year (FY) 2011, ICE detained an all-time high number of persons- 429,000.[5] In FY 2012, 409,849 individuals were removed by ICE’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations[6].

The numbers bear witness to the fact that enforcement of our immigration laws is happening at an unprecedented and incredible pace.  Through LIRS’s programmatic work, we have witnessed firsthand the detrimental effects immigration enforcement measures, such as immigration detention, have on individuals, families, and communities.

Isatu Jollah, grew up in Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war.[7] When she was twelve years old, Isatu was raped by rebel soldiers and separated from her mother. Isatu later suffered female genital mutilation (FGM) and was severely punished when she refused to perform the practice on other young women. Isatu fled to the United States where upon expressing her intention to apply for asylum at the airport she was detained in York County Prison (PA). While in detention, Isatu was denied medical care for complications relating to FGM. When post-traumatic stress disorder caused her attacks of anxiety she was isolated in solitary confinement.

Despite being an expensive and inhumane way to ensure appearance at immigration court proceedings, the growth of immigration detention has been steep and continual. The United States currently spends approximately 24% more money on immigration enforcement activities than on all other federal law enforcement programs combined.[8]

To detain a woman like Isatu for one day costs U.S. taxpayers an average of $164.[9] LIRS supports increased use of alternatives to detention, which range in cost from a few cents a day to an average of $22 a day and allow migrants to reunite with family members and contribute to their communities while undergoing immigration proceedings.[10] Isatu was eventually released from detention with a tracking device as part of an alternatives to detention program. Appearance rates in immigration proceedings for those released on alternatives to detention average over 90%, making these options a practical, humane, and economical alternative to detention.[11] Any reform of our immigration system must include  protections against arbitrary detention and safeguards to ensure enforcement is carried out in a fair,  humane, and economically sound manner.

LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership advocating on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations, and for providing services to migrants through over 60 grassroots legal and social service partners across the United States.

If you have any question about this statement, please contact Brittney Nystrom, Director for Advocacy, at (202) 626-7943 or via email at bnystrom@lirs.org. 

Additional LIRS Resources

  • The January 29, 2013 press release on President Obama’s speech outlining a vision for immigration reform may be read here: www.bit.ly/VxQHYW
  • The January 28, 2013 press release on the release of the bipartisan principles for immigration reform in the Senate may be read here: www.bit.ly/WhPPX2
  • LIRS’s FAQ’s on the Family Immigration System may be read here: www.bit.ly/11Jqt2Z
  • The December 15, 2011 press release expressing concerns with increased FY 2012 immigration detention spending may be read here: www.bit.ly/XoeHtA
  • The October 2011 report, Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, may be read here: www.bit.ly/VwrNFE


[1] Visa Bulletin, Department of State, http://travel.state.gov/visa/bulletin/bulletin_5856.html (February 2013).

[2] Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, Migration Policy Institute, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/enforcementpillars.pdf (January 2013).

[3] Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service www.lirs.org/dignity (October 2011).

[4] Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, PL 122-74 http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-112publ74/html/PLAW-112publ74.htm (Dec. 23, 2011).

[5] Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2011, Office of Immigration Statistics, Policy Directorate, http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/immigration-statistics/enforcement_ar_2011.pdf (Sept. 2012)

[6] FY 2012: ICE announces year-end removal numbers, highlights focus on key priorities and issues new national detainer guidance to further focus resources, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, http://www.ice.gov/news/releases/1212/121221washingtondc2.htm (Dec. 2012).

[7] Broken Promises: Seeking Political Asylum in America, Ladies Home Journal, http://www.lhj.com/health/news/seeking-political-asylum-in-america/?page=1 (Feb. 2010).

[8] Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, Migration Policy Institute http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/enforcementpillars.pdf (January 2013).

[9] The Math of Immigration Detention, National Immigration Forum, http://www.immigrationforum.org/images/uploads/MathofImmigrationDetention.pdf (August 2012).

[10] Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service www.lirs.org/dignity (October 2011).

[11] Ibid.