In recent weeks, you may have heard reports of a “migrant caravan” traveling through Mexico on the way to the U.S. As people of faith, we must hear these stories and see that these people are brothers and sisters seeking a better and safer life for themselves and their families. The majority of these migrants are asylum-seekers, seeking a safe place to live when their own homes are no longer safe.
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. Matthew 25:40
This caravan does not represent a unique spike in migration. Rather, this caravan, like others organized before it, is a symbolic, public demonstration organized by Pueblo Sin Fronteras to highlight the rights of individuals to seek international protection due to the inability of their governments to protect them. It is a reflection of the conditions of violence, corruption and impunity in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (NTCA) –Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
We must be clear: it is legal for asylum-seekers to present themselves at a port of entry or a border, and the U.S. has a legal and moral obligation to process asylum claims and protect such individuals seeking refuge, rather than turn them away or needlessly detain them and expose them to further traumas.
Last summer, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Bishops Reed and Brooke-Davidson, Father Paul Frey of the Diocese of West Texas, and Episcopal Church staff visited the Karnes County Residential Center. Karnes is one of three family immigration detention centers in the U.S. that can house over 1,000 immigrant mothers and children at any given time. Importantly, the significant majority of the individuals who are held in Karnes are asylum seekers seeking safety in the U.S. from countries experiencing extreme violence and poverty.
What we saw on this visit helped us understand the particular realities of children in detention. According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “the detention of children and their mothers is not only inhumane, but incompatible with a fair and just legal process.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has clearly stated that children should not be detained, as children and families who are detained suffer mental and physical health problems. The immigration detention system in our country detains nearly 400,000 immigrants annually, including asylum-seekers, who are also often denied or offered limited access to legal assistance and adequate healthcare.
As horrible as this practice is, the current administration has been proposing and implementing policies that will expand detention and partake in practices to further erode protections and care for individuals, families, and children seeking refuge from violence.
Data from the Administration itself shows that the Administration is separating parents from their children at the border while their asylum claims are being processed. The Women’s Refugee Commission and other service provider groups have documented the devastating impact separating families would have on children and their parents, saying, “such a policy flies in the face of domestic and international child welfare and refugee principles and laws. Separating families at the border would neither make America safer and would even further undermine U.S. obligations to ensure protection and policies protecting family unity.” In response to the caravan, the Administration has similarly sought to employ inhumane and unjust practices in response to their effort to seek safety.
In January, the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council passed a resolution deploring militarization as a primary response to immigration at our border. Indeed, border crossings at our Southern border are at an all-time low. Those who break our immigration laws in order to do us harm need to be prevented from doing so, but the increased militarization of the border and prison-like detention for migrants is not the solution.
There are alternatives to detention such as community-based supervision programs that include case management and legal and social services or phone-based check ins. These types of alternatives are less costly, more humane, and have been found to be effective in ensuring immigrants appear in court. And there are systems and practices that we can employ to humanely and properly process and protect those fleeing violence while also maintaining a secure and safe border for all.
As people of faith, we believe all children of God must be treated humanely and justly, and implementing alternatives to detention and maintaining our responsibility to hear and process a person’s asylum claim is a critical step towards that vision.