ELCA leaders tour immigration detention center, call on Obama to end detention

4/9/2015 12:00:00 PM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) – A group of Lutheran and Catholic leaders, during a March 27 visit to the Dilley Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas, heard the stories of women who have fled violent situations in Central America. About 400 women and children who are seeking asylum are detained at the facility.
            "Almost all the women we saw were fleeing violence either from gangs or cartels and occasionally domestic violence," said the Rev. Julian Gordy, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's (ELCA) Southeastern Synod, Atlanta. "They had encountered violence, sometimes of horrific proportions, on the way (to the United States). Then they were arrested, locked up and told you can post bond, but if you don't post bond, you are going back." Gordy chairs the ELCA Conference of Bishops' Immigration Ready Bench.
            In 2014, more than 68,000 people arrived in the United States, fleeing violence and difficult situations in Central America and elsewhere.
            "We all spoke to them and we prayed for them, and I don't think there were any women not in tears," said Gordy. "They were just devastated. They didn't know what was going to happen to them. They didn't think their children were thriving. The children didn't understand why they couldn't leave (the detention center), and they had had this traumatic experience getting there."
            "That's what bothered the women most, the women I talked to, that they're here looking for asylum, which they have the right to do under international law," said Gordy. "But they are accused of being a threat to America. That was what hurt the folks we talked to more than anything else – that they were accused of being bad people, they said, and being a threat to America when they were just trying to escape violence."
            Gordy told the story of one woman who fled her home because "her husband had been abusing their son since he was 7 years old. And she had been told that if she didn't post bond she would be sent back. She was pretty much beside herself."
            The Rev. Michael W. Rinehart, bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Houston, and a member of the board of directors for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, reflected on the visit in a blog post. "As our time went on and as we walked around the facility, I spoke to every person I saw, about two dozen mothers and a few children. The children were perilously thin; one boy showed me his ribs. The mothers told me there was plenty of food, but it was awful, and their children would not eat it," he wrote.
            Besides Gordy and Rinehart, the delegation included Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service; Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio; Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration; and Bishop James A. Tamayo of Laredo, Texas, consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.
            The delegation also met with groups of attorneys and others who help find pro bono immigration attorneys for the women and children. Gordy said having an immigration attorney makes it "far more likely to get a bond."
            "It is clear that there is no humane way to detain families," said Hartke in a press conference following the detention center tour. "Children, many of whom are babies and toddlers, do not belong in jails – nor do their mothers who have acted only to protect their very lives. Detention is inherently traumatic and damaging, especially for people who have fled persecution and violence in search of safety. We are advocating strongly to end the inhumane practice of family detention."
            Gordy said the ELCA and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service are helping to make a difference, but he emphasized that more can be done.
            "The most important thing we can do is to work for and insist on comprehensive immigration reform in the country" he said. "And the second thing we need to do right now regarding this is call people, write people, go to Congress, work through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to say there is no humane way to lock up women and babies. They are not a threat to this country. It's been demonstrated over and over again that you can guarantee that they show up in court, which is the purported reason for locking them up, in all kinds of ways that are as effective as locking them up."
            "One of the things we've been told when we've been in Washington," he added, "is that the people who don't want immigration reform or who don't want immigrants in the country are very vocal, and those of us who want immigrants treated well aren't nearly vocal enough."
            "There needs to be a public outcry, and I think the policy will ultimately change," said Rinehart in an interview.
            In a March 27 letter to President Obama, leaders of the ELCA joined faith leaders from across the United States in urging the president to "end the harsh policy of family detention and employ alternatives to detention where deemed necessary."
            ​"We believe this practice to be inhumane and harmful to the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of this vulnerable population. We also believe that it is inappropriate and unjust to seek to deter anyone, especially a woman and her children, from fleeing violence in their homeland to seek safe haven in the United States," wrote the leaders.
            The letter stated, "We urge you to reverse course on this policy and implement alternatives for all families in immigration detention which are humane and uphold the human rights of this vulnerable population. Our faith communities are ready and willing to welcome and assist families seeking refuge."
            Gordy said he hopes "the letter will be distributed widely and that people will see that this is going on in our name and with our tax money in this country and will just say we can't do that."
            The letter is available at www.lirs.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/FaithLeaderLetteronDetention_150326.pdf.  

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The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.8 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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