Chaplain raises awareness of problems with immigration family detention

by Patricia Zapor

Catholic News Service

June 23, 2015

Religious leaders, including Catholic and Lutheran bishops, meet outside St. Joseph Church in Pearsall, Texas, March 27. After visit to a nearby detention facility, the group called on U.S. government to halt the practice of family detention and to adopt humane alternatives. (CNS photo/Jordan McMorrough, Today’s Catholic)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- After a two-month stint as a chaplain at a new detention center for immigrant families in Dilley, Texas, Mercy Sister Kathleen Erickson came away impressed with elements of the operation, but keenly aware of a more subtle undercurrent.

Sister Kathleen said there's no doubt that there are relatively pleasant aspects of the campus-like surroundings at the 2,400-bed South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, opened last fall to house immigrant women and children who are awaiting court proceedings on their legal status.

There are playgrounds and new toys, laundry facilities, and a school. The services of doctors, counselors, and social workers are available. People who have spent weeks or months traveling from their home countries are provided with clothing, shelter, meals, and medical care.

But "that's the facade," she said in an interview with Catholic News Service during a visit to Washington to meet with congressional staffers about her experience. "The word 'insidious' comes to mind because it mitigates your outrage that women and children are being detained," she said.

Family detention has increasingly come under fire by advocates for detainees, including attorneys, religious leaders, and members of Congress, who fault the basic premise of keeping families locked up.

Numerous news reports in the last month have detailed the complaints. An attorney involved with a pending legal case challenging immigration detention of families in April leaked a preliminary U.S. District Court ruling that finds the Obama administration violates an 18-year-old court settlement for how migrant children are detained. McClatchy DC initially reported on the ruling.

According to The Associated Press, District Court Judge Dolly Gee put her ruling on hold and kept it secret to give the government and plaintiffs' attorneys time to try to negotiate a settlement by mid-June.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which provides legal services to detainees in Texas, told CNS June 17 that an announcement of a settlement could come at any time, or Gee could put her ruling into effect if there is no settlement.

The AP cited a memo describing the ruling, which said it applies to all minors in immigration custody, including those being held with a parent, and found that the detention facilities such as Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center, also in Texas, are not licensed to care for children.

The National Catholic Reporter reported June 10 that the corporations that run the Dilley and Karnes centers had received Texas licenses for operating child care services. But Ryan told CNS the licenses serve little purpose other than to cover detention center personnel as they watch detainees' children for a short period of time, such as when mothers are in legal proceedings that are conducted remotely, using computer, phone, and closed-circuit television connections.

Ten-year-old Jersey Vargas cries as she gives interviews after greeting her father, Mario Vargas-Lopez, at Los Angeles airport March 29. Vargas-Lopez was freed on bond from a detention center in Louisiana three days after a 17-member delegation from the Los Angeles Archdiocese urged Pope Francis to press President Barack Obama on the need for U.S. immigration reform. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

Ryan said pressure from activists, lawsuits challenging detention and reports like Sister Kathleen's are having an effect, as evidenced by the June 15 visit by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to the Karnes center. Johnson also said in a June 8 speech at Rice University that fewer families are arriving at the border this year, fewer are being detained, and their stays in detention are shorter.

Among the actions that are contributing to pressure on the federal government was a report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies released in May. Based in part on bishops' visits to family detention centers, it decried conditions and recommended dismantling the whole system, replacing it with less drastic ways of keeping track of immigrants whose legal cases are pending.

A similar report last October by the Women's Refugee Commission concluded that "there is no humane way to detain families."

Other religious groups have weighed in with similar sentiments. Pax Christi USA noted on its website in mid-June that it had signed onto a forthcoming letter to President Barack Obama discussing the psychological trauma experienced by children, in particular, who have been detained at Karnes. It told of the March suicide attempt at Dilley by a Honduran mother, detained with her 4-year-old daughter, "who had fled death threats from gangs." The report said she was suicidal because she could not afford the bond set to allow her to leave.

More than 160 members of Congress also called for an end to family detention. Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California said the conditions of detention for people who seek asylum in the U.S., which sometimes include "outright neglect and abuse ... is not only unconscionable, but it's un-American." She and seven other members of Congress planned a visit to the Dilley and Karnes centers June 22 and 23.

On June 16, Jesuit Refugee Service and U.S.-based Jesuit law schools released their own report focused on legal representation for immigrants. While most of its recommendations were focused on making resources available, making asylum more readily available, and providing services to unaccompanied minors, it also called for detention reforms, including offering supervised relief, case management, and community support programs.

Sister Kathleen said as she got to know some of the detained families at Dilley she realized many were depressed and under great stress, in part from not understanding their legal options, not being able to contact relatives, and from a pervasive lack of privacy.

Women told her of being unable to sleep because every half hour employees of the detention center "checked the temperature" of the sleeping areas, sweeping their flashlights across each of the bunk beds, she said. Such patrols of the living quarters happen around the clock, Sister Kathleen said.

The center in Dilley -- which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America at a cost of $300 per person per day, according to AP -- opened as the Department of Homeland Security closed a highly criticized temporary family detention operation in Artesia, New Mexico. The Karnes center has existed longer and will hold 1,000 people at capacity. A smaller family detention center is in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Dilley was opened to hold families that had been detained after crossing the border from Mexico last year. More than 39,000 families and 47,000 minors traveling on their own -- the vast majority from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador -- were picked up by the Border Patrol in the last fiscal year. Both figures represent dramatic increases over recent years.

Federal law stipulates that minors detained while traveling on their own must be released to family members if possible, or to child welfare systems. Their care is entrusted to the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services, which has extensive history in dealing with children and people who have been through various kinds of trauma.

But the federal strategy for families -- who aren't covered by that law -- is to keep them under the jurisdiction of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They typically are held in locked detention centers while their cases proceed through immigration courts or asylum adjudication. For the families held at the Dilley center, that has meant being detained at least weeks, and sometimes many months, Sister Kathleen said.

In answer to CNS queries about the issues Sister Kathleen raised, ICE sent an email response.

"(ICE) adheres to federal law which affords detainees freedom of worship and the free exercise of their religious beliefs to the greatest extent practicable within the confines of a detention setting," said the statement.

Rather than addressing any issues Sister Kathleen raised, the response took a broad religious-activities approach. In answer to questions about privacy and problems with the delivery of donated Bibles and "angel to angel" letters from churchgoers around the country, they said:

"According to ICE detention standards, all facilities shall designate space for religious activities. This ensures detainees have opportunities to engage in practices of their religious faith that are deemed essential by that faith while ensuring the safety, security and the orderly operation of the facility."

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- After a two-month stint as a chaplain at a new detention center for immigrant families in Dilley, Texas, Mercy Sister Kathleen Erickson came away impressed with elements of the operation, but keenly aware of a more subtle undercurrent.

Published (until 12/27/2031)