Denying Dignity in the Name of Deterrence?

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

USCCB’s Ashley Feasley, Esq.

Last week, we failed as a nation to welcome the stranger.

Instead of welcoming vulnerable women, mothers and children seeking refuge from Central American violence, we opened a new prison-like facility to detain them. Last Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson unveiled the Dilley Family Detention Center, a former oil field worker camp in rural South Texas and now the nation’s largest family immigration detention center. Dilley will house 2,400 young immigrant mothers and their children.

On Friday, GEO Corporation announced a 626-bed expansion to its facility in Texas, the 532-bed Karnes County Residential Center. Karnes will now have a total capacity of 1,158 beds available to detain women and children and will generate approximately $20 million per year in additional corporate revenues. The opening of Dilley and the expansion at Karnes mark the most recent and strongest articulation of the Obama administration’s policy goal of using detention as a tool to deter migrant families from arriving at the southwest Border.

The current ramping up of prison-like facilities to contain vulnerable women and children goes squarely against the principles articulated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the ethos of Catholic social teaching itself. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, responded to the opening of the Dilley facility by saying:

“It is inhumane to house young mothers with children in restrictive detention facilities, as if they are criminals.” 

Bishop Elizondo noted that these mothers and children arrive “. . . traumatized from their journey . . . and need care and support, not further emotional and psychological harm.” And he is right, as study after study has shown that detention harms children’s psychological development.

In July, I visited Artesia, News Mexico, where this summer a hastily thrown together “facility” for migrants and refugees crossing the border opened, consisting of portable buildings on the grounds of a federal law enforcement training center. During a tour, I witnessed scores of small children and babies, some walking and sitting outside under the hot sun. One little girl, probably just 2 years old, wore a sweater and was sweating heavily. When asked why she was wearing the sweater, her mother said that it was the girl’s favorite possession, and that she was worried it would be taken away from her if she took it off. The image of an overheated little girl wearing her favorite and likely only possession brought home how entirely unsuited prison-like detention facilities are for children. The Artesia facility is now in the process of being closed.

Family detention conflicts with a central tenet of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of human life. In their pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the US and Mexican bishops declare that “regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected.”

Bishops are speaking out against the rapid rise of family detention facilities popping up in their backyards. Archbishop Gustavo-Siller of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, where both Dilley and Karnes are located, has spoken out against family detention. On Dilley’s debut, he said:

It is the largest facility of its kind and some have called it ‘History Making’. That forces me to ask, ‘What kind of history does our country want to make?’ Will our history be defined by the detention of children and their mothers who do not threaten us with either violence or security risks? They need mercy and compassion, not derision and detention. The deep emotional and spiritual wounds that have been inflicted on them remain open sores without proper counseling and care.

The system doesn’t have to be like this. There are financially and morally responsible alternatives to detention that are available. Community-based alternatives to detention offer case management for children and their mothers as well as a cost-saving and humane solution to this problem.

The bishops ask that you advocate for the end of family detention. We must work together to welcome the stranger. Detention is an inhumane option for these vulnerable women and children. Contact the White House at 202-456-1414 and send Congress a postcard letting them know that you oppose family detention.

Ashley Feasley, Esq., is an immigration policy advisor with the USCCB Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs Staff.

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