February 26, 2009 STATEMENT — LIRS and Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Call for Fair and Humane Treatment of Immigration Detainees

Press Contact: Stacy Martin, Vice President for Mission Advancement
410-230-2847, lirspress@lirs.org

LIRS and Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Call for Fair and Humane Treatment of Immigration Detainees

BALTIMORE, February 26, 2009—Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) task force on immigration applaud Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (DCA) for introducing the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act of 2009, a bill that takes important steps in ensuring that this country’s immigration detention system is fair and humane, and that no one—especially asylum seekers, families, or other vulnerable groups—is ever locked in a jail cell unless absolutely warranted. We urge Congress and President Obama to take note of this important bill that will help restore America to its standing as a welcoming nation that accords everyone dignity and respect.

Poor Conditions in Detention
The need for reform of the immigration detention system is urgent. In recent years, the federal government has embarked on an unprecedented campaign to apprehend, detain and deport noncitizens. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) now holds more than 300,000 people in jail-like conditions each year. Conditions in detention are often substandard and detainees have suffered dehumanizing treatment and received poor medical care. DHS’s Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, and the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued reports critical of the federal immigration detention system.

In 2007, LIRS investigated conditions for families in detention and issued the “Locking Up Family Values” report which concluded that the use of jail-like detention for families is inhumane and never appropriate. In 2008, LIRS and several ELCA bishops, including signors to this statement, visited detention facilities in Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, and Washington. The Michigan delegation heard accounts of how difficult it was to use telephones—a lifeline to legal counsel and family—or to visit with loved ones. In a New Jersey facility, the delegation met an asylum seeker from Tibet who had been detained for months. Lutheran and other faith leaders regularly hold vigils outside the New Jersey facility and minister to those in detention.

We are deeply troubled that our nation would resort to detention under what amounts to punitive prison conditions, against individuals who pose no threat to the community or national security. We are equally concerned that the federal government does not have adequate safeguards to ensure humane treatment for those detained. Our country should provide safe and humane conditions for anyone deprived of their liberty, no matter why they are being detained. The bill accomplishes that by setting clear, enforceable standards for the government to implement.

Failure to Explore Less Costly and More Humane Alternatives
The government’s over-reliance on detention is particularly disturbing in that many of those detained, and some of those who have died, are members of vulnerable groups that deserve protection, not incarceration. They include asylum seekers and victims of torture, persons who come to the United States for refuge from persecution only to find themselves behind bars until their cases can be heard. They include families with young children and sometimes even nursing mothers,another signal that our government is not making judicious use of detention. Many detainees pose no threat to public safety and are good candidates for release into the community.

In answer to this problem, the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act of 2009 increases the use of alternatives to detention and other release options for vulnerable persons and other immigration detainees. Release is more humane for detainees and increases their ability to access legal assistance. By releasing more people back to their families and communities in ways that still ensure they will appear at court, this bill saves taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary detention costs while improving the enforcement of immigration laws.

Protection for Children
Children picked up alone near border checkpoints are sometimes held in short-term holding areas that have poor quality food, shelter, or living conditions for children. LIRS and its national partners serve thousands of these children, many who are migrating because they are victims of abuse, persecution, or trafficking and deserve better treatment than border facilities are providing. The Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act of 2009 will increase training for immigration officers, facilitate speedy transfers of these children to better-equipped shelter facilities, and improve general protections for this vulnerable group.

The government’s rapidly escalating use of detention is having a devastating and counterproductive impact on our families, children and communities. Ultimately, if the measure of a civilized society is how we treat the most vulnerable, the over-reliance on detention takes us down a path that undermines not only the dignity of those we detain but also our country’s core values. As Lutheran leaders we believe that the current approach has gone too far. We join Representative Roybal-Allard in her effort to reform our immigration detention system.

For questions or comment contact Gregory Chen, LIRS director for legislative affairs, at 202-626-7933 or gchen@lirs.org.

Sincerely,
Annie Wilson
Executive Vice President, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Bishops of the Immigration Ready Bench of the ELCA
The Rev. H. Julian Gordy, Southeastern Synod
The Rev. Richard Graham, Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod
The Rev. H. Gerard Knoche, Delaware-Maryland Synod
The Rev. Gerald Mansholt, Central States Synod
The Rev. Alan Rimbo, Metropolitan New York Synod
The Rev. Paul W. Stumme-Diers, Greater Milwaukee Synod
The Rev. Stephen S. Talmage, Grand Canyon Synod

Bishops of the ELCA
The Rev. Chris Boerger, Northwest Washington Synod
The Rev. Claire S. Burkat, Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod
The Rev. Bruce Burnside, South-Central Synod of Wisconsin
The Rev. E. Roy Riley, New Jersey Synod
The Rev. Michael Rinehart, Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod
The Rev. Floyd M. Schoenhals, Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod
The Rev. Steven Ullestad, Northeastern Iowa Synod