Family Detention


April 23, 2015

Westminster has a long history of following the Biblical mandate to open one's heart in hospitality and reach out in care for the stranger.  In the 1980s, many in the congregation supported the Sanctuary Movement, when faith communities, universities, and other organizations rallied to advocate on behalf of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution in Central America .  It was in this spirit that Westminster sponsored delegations of congregants and College of Wooster students to BorderLinks, a nonprofit educational organization in Tucson, Arizona that grew out of the Sanctuary movement to connect people to the reality of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and immigrant communities in the United States.   Through these experiences, Westminster cultivated its passion for immigration advocacy and our support of immigration reform.  

In recent years, through the involvement of Westminster members, our church has started to address some of the key factors that make life intolerable for people in Central America and cause them to leave their homelands; by joining other local communities of faith, businesses, medical practices, and individuals in support of CAMO, Central American Medical Outreach, a humanitarian organization with its mission "to improve the quality of life of people in Central America by strengthening health care systems and promoting sustainable community development."  In addition to financial support from Westminster and some of our members, a group of volunteers perform hands-on mission work at CAMO's Orrville facility, typically on the last Wednesday of the month, to make a difference in Honduras.

This coming month Westminster will continue to open it's heart and take action for the vulnerable and the stranger as we join the Wooster Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for a joint worship service and fundraiser on Sunday, May 17 in Mackey Hall.  During this time we will show our support for Wooster native and immigration attorney Brian Hoffman as he speaks out against family detention and reaches out in care and concern for mothers and children who are being detained by our government.  Brian is taking a leave of absence from his law firm in Columbus, Ohio to spend six months in Texas coordinating a project that provides free legal services to women and children at a family detention center in Dilley, Texas.

The Huffington Post reports in an article posted on 04/09/2015 entitled Border Crisis Is Smaller, But Still A Crisis, that in  March 2014 "the numbers of unaccompanied minors apprehended crossing the border, most of them from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, were increasing, heading into the warmer spring and summer months" with a total of nearly 7,200 children apprehended, up from about 4,800 the month before.  By May and June, the numbers had increased to about 10,600 each month for a total of more than 68,000 children for the entire 2014 fiscal year.  The article states that at the same time "a similar crisis was happening with mothers and children coming to the U.S., with more than 68,000 family units apprehended."

Although the number of children and family units that are crossing the Border is decreasing this calendar year, it is of grave concern as "unaccompanied minors and families are still crossing the border illegally, and issues persist on detention and deportation policies. And most of the problems in Central America that unaccompanied minors, along with mothers and children, are fleeing haven't gone away." 

It is in this context that people of faith are taking action and we invite you to bring family, friends, and neighbors to join us in worship on Sunday, May 17th as we educate ourselves about this human rights disaster and take action for the humanity of all people.  It is also in this context that I joined faith leaders across the country in signing the following letter to President Barack Obama.  

We, the undersigned faith leaders, write to you with grave concern about the practice of family detention in the United States. We oppose family detention on the grounds that it is immoral, inhumane, and unnecessary. We call upon the Administration to immediately halt the practice of family detention and employ alternatives that allow children freedom and dignity while they await due process.

We are appalled that the facilities in which refugee women and children are held are for-profit corporations that benefit economically from the plight of vulnerable families, many of whom have been extorted and exploited in numerous ways before they arrive at our borders. Most of the women and children in family detention centers are fleeing political and economic violence in their home countries and qualify for asylum and other protections under US law.

As people of faith, we believe that it is immoral to detain children on the basis of their parents' immigration status. We agree with the judgement of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child which declared in 2012: "Children should not be criminalized or subject to punitive measures because of their or their parents' migration status. The detention of a child because of their parent's migration status constitutes a child rights violation and always contravenes the principle of the best interests of the child."

Family detention is not only a violation of international standards, it is a violation of our own commitment as a country to offer protection and refuge to women, men, and children. Instead of locking up children in unlicensed, for-profit facilities, ICE can and and should use alternative community support and case management programs that help families receive the legal support they require as they await the resolution of their asylum cases. Many of our faith-based organizations are willing and able to support these efforts.

We are also deeply concerned about a rush to deport women and children without adequate legal counsel, which has already resulted in the deaths of young people on their return. Given the gravity of the crisis in Central America and the particular risk to youth, your Administration should explore offering Temporary Protected Status to those fleeing violence in the region.

President Obama as a person of faith and a father, we know that you believe, as we do, that these families are created in the image of God and should not be treated as criminals. Large scale family detention was ended in 2009 after a prolonged campaign involving a lawsuit and human rights investigations. We urge you to use your executive power to put an end to family detention once again and help protect vulnerable and innocent children who are detained in for-profit prisons.

We appreciate your consideration of this urgent matter as we pray for a swift and decisive end to the practice of family detention."

It is crises like these that remind us that Easter is indeed  a way of life, seeking personal as well as political transformation of the world by following Jesus of Nazareth and standing for what He was passionate about by addressing systemic issues of greater economic justice, less dependence on military power for our security, and human rights for all, including environmental justice, leading us to a more economically just and peaceful world.  

Keywords: immigration
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