Earlier this year, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) gift officer Rev. Paul Erbes made the trip to Texas to visit the Karnes County Residential Center, located southeast of San Antonio, Texas.
Originally built in 2010 to house adult immigrants facing deportation, the facility in Karnes is a 76,000 square foot complex. It has recently been repurposed to detain immigrant children and mothers who fled violence and persecution in their home countries in Central America in search of safety in the United States.
The mothers and children held at Karnes are survivors of violence and persecution, citizens of states whose governments are unable to protect them. They are victims of an endless cycle of abuse. They are victims of gangs and the violence they perpetrate.
And now they are being held against their will, waiting to plead their cases before a judge, lacking the funds necessary to post bond as the government refuses to release them to family already living in the United States. We would not stand for this inhumane treatment of our native-born neighbors, yet our government feels it is appropriate to lock up small children — with an average age of six — and their mothers while they await their court hearings.
Detaining immigrants costs taxpayers nearly $2 billion annually. Not only is that an unnecessarily enormous financial cost, but there are also drastic costs to the well-being of those held in detention, their families, and communities.
There are currently more than 1,000 children and mothers in custody, including those at Karnes. Detention is no place for families. Children are losing weight due to the trauma of their past circumstances, their long treacherous journeys, and now their incarceration. Reports show that the mental health of families continues to decline the longer they are held in custody. There have also been recent sexual abuse charges filed at some of the family detention facilities.
Pastor Erbes reported that the living quarters at Karnes are cramped — 4 bunks to a room, and the conditions are far from ideal. And the occupants know in their minds that a long, hard road awaits them.
The women and children detained in facilities like Karnes are the least among “the least of these” that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of Matthew. They have no power over their future, no power over their children’s future. These mothers are simply doing what any good mother would do — protecting their children at all costs.
Allowing those women and children to live with their family members while awaiting their immigration court hearings would not cost the government a thing, as opposed to the $343 it costs per day to detain a mother or a child. For those who require monitoring, there are effective alternatives to detention based on community support that are a fraction of the cost.
In addition to being extremely costly and inhumane, detention also limits adequate access to legal services, opportunities for visitation, and long-term integration for vulnerable individuals. Alternatives to detention have proven effective at ensuring compliance with immigration court proceedings while also maintaining respect for human dignity and upholding the United States’ legacy as a nation of welcome for those fleeing persecution.
We have the responsibility to speak on behalf of these vulnerable families. We need to redouble our efforts to advocate for closure of family detention centers.
Until these facilities are closed, we need to work with service partners, congregations, and communities to ensure that every mother and child who is detained receives regular compassionate visits and vigorous legal services to allow them to live freely in a more humane and dignified manner. To urge President Obama to reverse his current policy, we recently sent him a letter signed by 65 Lutheran and Roman Catholic Bishops calling for alternatives to detention for all families.
We hope you will join us as we continue to give power to the powerless. A voice to the voiceless. Hope to those who are clinging on to their last remaining option for safety.