The Cost of Ending Family Detention
Investing in people by divesting of our own power and profit
text and photos by Steve Pavey
End family detention!
End all migrant detention!
End detention for all, period!
Why is the US government locking up refugee families in privately owned and operated for-profit detention centers? The answer is right there: for profit, and this coupled with hatred and fear. We have seen over the last year a concerted bi-partisan effort to build family detention centers as a response to last summer’s (2014) surge of Central American refugees arriving at our border fleeing violence and poverty.
It is no surprise that this is happening when you learn of the enormous amount of money spent on lobbying for the creation of private prisons combined with bi-partisan and public criminalization of migrants and refugees. This is only a further development of the expanding immigrant industrial complex. When tens of thousands of refugees from Central America showed up last summer at the US/Mexico border, the US responded with punitive detention and deportation. The goal was to send the message that if you continue to seek refuge in the US, you will be met with more suffering. Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, backed President Obama’s response by saying, “We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. We don’t want to send a message that’s contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”
Two clear policies have been implemented to thwart welcoming refugees at our border, say advocates on the ground: “detention as deterrence” and “high bond or no bond.” In the first case, in spite of the illegal, let alone immoral, practice of detaining women and children seeking asylum, the US contracted with private prison corporations to build two new detention camps in Karnes City and Dilley, TX, bringing the total daily bed/crib total to nearly 3,000. The second has been to give either no bond or a $7,500 bond to women and children who have already passed a ‘credible or reasonable fear’ interview. After passing credible fear interviews, there is no reason to detain an asylee as they continue to work through their case towards asylum. No point, that is, other than to be punitive. A federal judge just ruled (April 24) family detention to be illegal based on the Flores v. Holder settlement. The US government has 30 days to settle that matter before it is brought back to court.
In March, detained mothers at Karnes Immigrant Detention Center began hunger strikes to win small victories inside as well as ultimately to bring public attention to their demand to be released. A second hunger strike in April led to nearly 10,000 signatures on a letter delivered to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña, demanding their release: “These mothers and children have come to the US fleeing terrible violence and seeking safety, and instead are being locked up and re-traumatized.”
On May 2, nearly 600 people gathered from across the US to march two miles from the center of the small town of Dilley, TX, out to the newly built Dilley Immigrant Detention Center, where they held a demanding an end to all family detention centers. One of the first speakers to bear witness against the atrocities of family detention has personally experienced the trauma of child detention. Dr. Satsuki Ina was born inside Tule Lake Internment Camp in 1944 and lived there for two years; later she became a professor of psychotherapy specializing in and assisting families with trauma. She spoke on why she had come to protest family detention:
There were three forces at work: racism, wartime hysteria, and corporate profits. … we were American citizens but innocent of any crime. Today we stand with you in unity and solidarity, because incarceration for children and families not only is unjust, it’s immoral! … So I visited some of the families at Karnes, and the similarities were stunning to me. One of the things that is very clear, that to remove 120,000 Japanese-Americans there were huge economic gains for large corporate organizations, and the same thing is happening here … but nobody came to protest on our behalf, nobody like people like you took the time or the consciousness to protest the unjust incarceration, so thank you for being here today. Let’s shut it down!
Most heartbreaking was the testimony given by children who had just been released from the Karnes Immigrant Detention Center. Melanie is only 4 years old, but she already knows, from firsthand experience, the meaning of words like detention, ICE, and freedom. She spoke out:
My name is Melanie. I want for them to liberate Melissa and Leslie. They are in Karnes (Detention Center). This was my ID. It says ICE resident. I was in Karnes, and I want them to liberate everyone who is in Karnes. I want them to free everyone, everyone, everyone, and to bring them here. My mom was crying because of everyone that was detained at Karnes.
Manuel, a 6-year-old, shared:
When I was in Karnes I was with my mom, and when I was there I tried to make an airplane out of paper. And the guard saw it, and they got mad at me and took it away. And I wanted to make the paper airplane for everyone being detained so that they could be free.
The Detention Watch Network, in solidarity with the mothers and children detained, have provided a number ways for you to join in solidarity during this coming Mother’s Day Week of Action to #EndFamilyDetention, including signing a petition. Barbara Hines, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the UT-Austin School of Law, also spoke at the May 2 rally: “I’m convinced that we are going to win this struggle, just like we won the last struggle to close Hutto.” In 2009, Hines was part of a large-scale effort that led to the end of family detention at Hutto Detention Center, leaving only 84 beds to detain families at Berks in Leesport, PA.
But a win to end immigrant family detention is just one small step in this struggle for migrant and human freedom. What would it look like for people of Christian faith to open our lives with hospitality to migrants? What would it look like to accompany migrants beyond token words of solidarity or signing a petition? We US Christians—myself included—want to budget justice, but we aren’t willing to give up our attachment to the current political-economic system of violence that continues to dehumanize the most vulnerable populations. The very means of power we use to liberate belong to the same system that imprisons and destroys life.
What would it look like if today’s church, like the early church, decided to eschew political action and instead embodied the practice of Jesus’s self-emptying of power:
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 4-8)
Undocumented activist and artist Marco Saavedra asks us to consider solidarity as a kind of incarnation, “which does not mean co-opting or de-centering the injustice from the oppressed, but becoming the oppressed through divestment.” Are we ready to consider the costs of this solidarity of divestment? It may be a start to heed the call of a few to defund deportations and divest of all profit by ending the private prison industry. But this would just be the beginning of following Jesus by divesting of our power and investing in love of one another, a journey that would no doubt lead to some very unexpected and perhaps terrifying places.
Steve (Ph.D., M.Div.) is a documentary photographer, applied anthropologist & contemplative activist at Hope In Focus. His creative process is deeply shaped by accompanying and being accompanied by humanity living on the margins of empire, weaving our stories through the arts towards collective action and mutual liberation. Steve’s photography focuses on hope–hope found in the struggle and dignity of becoming human & the unmasking of illusions. He is co-author, with Marco Saavedra, of the book Shadows Then Light, which explores civil disobedience in support of immigrant justice.
You’ll find lots of immigration advocacy resources in our free small group study guide As the Citizen Among Us: Loving the Immigrant as Ourselves.