Love Must Win Out

Bethany Welch

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D.

For nearly a year now, I have had the distinct privilege of accompanying two asylum seeking families from the Horn of Africa. When I look back at the appeal letter that I wrote to garner support for their arrival in South Philadelphia, I am both humbled by what has transpired since and embarrassed by how naive I was when the journey began.

I believe in the power of advocacy. I work on systems change. I go to protests to shine a light on injustice and I have made a career of helping urban neighborhoods build capacity to fight the effects of poverty.

What I have not done is let love prevail. Until this year. Which is why, now, I believe firmly that love sits at the intersection of mercy and justice. Not the love of paper valentines and heart shaped boxes of candy, but a radical, transforming love manifest to us in the Incarnation.

My part of the story begins in late August of 2015 when, in response to the call of Pope Francis to give shelter to migrants and refugees, St. Thomas Aquinas parish and the adjacent social justice center, which I direct, began to consider providing material support for specific families. This would be above and beyond the work that we already do as a community of immigrants and refugees around education, advocacy, leadership development, legal outreach, streetscape revitalization, and more.

As I wrote to donors then, the story of the two families that we did receive is a universal tale of struggle to find safety and a chance at a better life. They escaped torture and assault. They made their way from one country in Africa to the next, up on through South America and eventually to the Texas border. When these two single mothers and their young children landed in a detention facility in Pennsylvania instead of the wide open streets of a democratic America, it was compassionate pro-bono legal counsel who contacted me to discuss the prospect of finding a welcoming community to support them. It turns out that, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not allow them individual freedoms while awaiting an asylum hearing, they could be “signed for” by a U.S. citizen with a valid address and be released to his or her care.

Fighting for justice, motivated by righteous anger, does not sustain you when the system is this broken. The flame burns you up and out. I have seen this happen to dear colleagues and I’ve suffered from it myself. The difference this time was that I took on the system in the context of a loving community of believers who proclaimed hope in the face of despair and I did so without a political agenda. There is a valiant and important movement to close the detention center where these families were held, but this round, that wasn’t where my efforts were focused.

Instead, I was asked to enter into the suffering of strangers by staying present with them, every day, rain or shine, for fun errands like shopping for Christmas dresses and in the profoundly raw moments of listening to a proud, beautiful 25 year old woman sob with the indignity of having to explain why she needed to find a long skirt that would cover the lacerations caused by the ICE issued ankle monitor bracelet, a condition of her release from the detention facility.

In 1977, a few years before he was murdered in the act of celebrating Mass, Blessed Oscar Romero said, “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.” This kind of love is what these two women and their children have demonstrated to me during our time together.

Love says goodbye to your parents and siblings in the hope that you can make more of a difference in their lives by leaving than by staying.

Love is months on the road, at the hands of smugglers, in order to extract your four year old from what will be a life of famine or military conscription by a corrupt government.

Love is not giving up on humanity when you ask for asylum from the nation held up as a model of a free and fair society and instead, authorities place you in a prison.

Love maintains a persistent, echoing cry for medical care when that four year old son is plagued by gastrointestinal viruses that rip through the close quarters of the detention facility in the same way cholera and dysentery take hold in a refugee camp in a developing country.

Love hopes all things, even when your court date for a preliminary hearing is postponed yet again.

For one of these families, love did win out. The first pair were granted asylum in late May, which situated them to receive refugee style benefits and we were able to match them with an affluent suburban parish to accompany them for the next year of life in America. For the second, the finish line keeps getting moved, even as they become more and more invested in the life of our parish and take on a larger part of my heart. While I continue to see my calling as one of fighting injustice through advocacy and innovative community building projects, I have learned that the work must be rooted in love, for this is the only force that will overcome the world.

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founder of the Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and recipient of the 2014 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award granted by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Nominations for the 2016 awards are being accepted through July 31, 2016.

Reforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System

In the six years since the inception of the Obama administration’s detention reform initiative in 2009, the number of immigrant detainees per year has risen to more than 400,000, the administration has opened immense new family detention centers, and the overwhelming majority of persons in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have remained in prisons, jails and other secure facilities where they are subject to standards designed for criminal defendants and, in many ways, treated more harshly than criminals. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently released a report, Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Immigrant Detention System, which functions as a response to the ever growing immigrant detention system and includes a number of recommendations to make it more humane.

The report’s overarching recommendation is that the U.S. immigration detention system be dismantled and replaced with an alternatives to detention (ATD) program that uses a network of supervised release, case management and community support programs, designed to ensure court appearances. Highlighting the contrast between the current system and this new approach, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, NY noted that “there are ways to create a humane system and also ensure that immigrants are complying with the law, but we have created a detention industry in this country which preys upon the vulnerability of our fellow human beings, the vast majority of whom are not criminals.” Among other benefits, an alternative to detention system is both more humane and more cost effective than the correctional, national security focused system currently in place.

Alternatives to Detention programs respect human dignity better than does the current detention paradigm:

Unauthorized migrants apprehended by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) are placed into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and are remanded to prison-like systems that is based on a correctional, criminal, and national security paradigm. Maintaining a system that relies on mandatory detention and does not take into account an individualized determination of flight risk and danger should be eliminated. For example, pregnant and nursing women, asylum-seekers (particularly those determined to have a credible fear of persecution), the very ill, the disabled, the elderly, immigrant families, and other vulnerable persons should not be detained but should be placed in an alternative to detention system that allows them to remain in contact with their family and avoid the psychological and at times physical trauma that accompanies life in prison based systems.

Alternative to Detention programs are more cost effective than the current detention paradigm:

The average immigration detention bed cost $158 per night in FY 2013, compared to $10.55 for the average daily cost of ATD programs. Between FY 2011 and 2013, the full service ATD program yielded an appearance rate of 99 percent at court hearings and 95 percent at scheduled final removal hearings. In short, ATD programs when properly funded and implemented can provide a relatively inexpensive method to ensure court appearances, while at the same time avoiding detaining these migrants in prison like structures that degrade human dignity.

What can you do?

Our biblical tradition calls us to love, act justly toward, and identify with persons on the margins of society, including newcomers and imprisoned persons. Please take a moment to read the report so that you can better understand the conditions confronting migrants who are trapped in prison-like settings. Educate your friends, family, and neighbors the conditions confronting detained migrants and alternatives that are available. Contact your Congresspersons and urge them to support measures that will decrease our dependence on private prison systems for the detention of migrants and move to an alternatives to detention model that simultaneously respects human dignity and ensures that migrants comply with the law as they wait for their judicial process to proceed forward.

Photo_Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB.

Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Bishops Call for an End to Immigrant Family Detention

Archbishop Garcia-Siller calls for an end to immigrant family detention during a press conference in Dilley, Texas.

Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller calls for an end to immigrant family detention during a press conference in Dilley, Texas.

Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran bishops visited today with young mothers and children who have fled violence in their home countries and are now incarcerated at Dilley Detention Center in Dilley, Texas. The bishops called upon the federal government to halt the practice of immigrant family detention, citing the harmful effects on mothers, children and the moral character of society. Among the bishops present were Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio and Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration.

In response to the influx of some 60,000 migrant family members who arrived along the southwest border in 2014, the federal government expanded its number of family detention centers across the country. Locations for these facilities include Karnes and Dilley, Texas and Berks, Pennsylvania. The purpose of these detention centers is to expand the ability of the federal government to detain migrant families on their arrival.

Migrant families (typically young mothers and children) apprehended while crossing the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are placed into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE then places these immigrant families into family detention facilities. Family immigrant detention facilities are described by ICE as “residential facilities,” and detained families are considered “residents.” In reality, however, these detained families have limited freedoms and are forced to live in a highly restrictive setting.

Many of these detained migrant families have valid, international protection claims that deserve fair adjudication. The United States bishops believe that during this process they should not be held in detention for indefinite periods of time. Children should not be locked up in prison-like facilities that restrict their movements and stunt their psychological and emotional development. Placing vulnerable women and children in detention who have experienced extreme persecution and violence contravenes our moral and religious principles to protect the defenseless and welcome the stranger.

The bishops are deeply concerned that immigrant family detention compromises the health and welfare of children, especially their emotional and psychological wellbeing. Following the bishops’ their visit to Dilley, Archbishop Garcia-Siller asked, “Why? Why do we feel compelled to place in detention such vulnerable individuals –traumatized young mothers with children fleeing persecution in their home countries?”

Instead of incarceration, the bishops support community-based alternatives to detention programs that are more humane than the mandatory detention programs currently in place.

Dr. Todd Scribner is education & outreach coordinator at the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services.