Family detention is the focus of the next PC(USA) immigration webinar

Colleagues from Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will co-host the Sept. 22 conversation

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Signs marked a December caravan and prayer vigil at the Berks Detention Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mateo Toro)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — “Welcoming the Stranger,” a webinar series from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Migration Roundtable, returns at noon Eastern Time on Wednesday, Sept. 22, with an episode focused on family detention.

“Freedom for Families” will be co-hosted with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and focuses on a traumatic practice that was conceived to deter families from trying to come to the United States, though there is no evidence that it accomplishes that goal. The Migration Roundtable includes PC(USA) staff whose work focuses in whole or in part on migration from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), the Office of Public Witness (OPW), and the Office of Immigration Issues.

Click here to register for the ‘Welcoming the Stranger’ webinar at noon Eastern Time on Sept. 22.

This episode will be co-hosted by Susan Krehbiel, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Associate for Refugees & Asylum. To get ready for the webinar, Presbyterian News Service asked Krehbiel a few questions:

Q: Please tell us about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the PC(USA)’s relationship with it, particularly in terms of immigration and refugee issues.

A: The PC(USA) and ELCA and their predecessor denominations have a long history of collaboration in many areas of humanitarian and justice ministry, including with refugees and asylum seekers. Both our denominations are active members of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition where we work together on U.S. policy issues such as immigration detention, asylum and refugee resettlement.  We were also particularly interested in partnering with ELCA on this webinar because of their AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities) strategy which is focused on the northern triangle countries of Central America and Mexico. The two large family detention centers in Texas were established in 2014 at which time the families arriving to the U.S. border were primarily from Central America.

Q: Where does the issue of family detention stand? What are the major ongoing issues with current government policies on family detention?

A: The Biden Administration has made some changes to the use of family detention but has not ended the policy of detaining families. Since 2014, there have been three family detention centers — one in Berks County, Pennsylvania, one in Dilley, Texas, and one in Karnes, Texas. The Berks County facility is the oldest family detention center. In February, we were happy to see the Administration release the families at Berks. However, we have since learned that they are now planning to detain women there instead. Meanwhile in Texas, the two detention centers are still being used to hold families but for shorter periods of time while they go through their initial immigration process and are tested for COVID-19.

All of these changes are operational, not a change to the policy itself. In fact, the Biden Administration has proposed to continue funding family detention in the coming fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.

Q: Please tell us about the panelists for this episode and what experiences they bring to this discussion?

A: We will begin the webinar with some first-person accounts through video and reading of testimony from parents who have been detained at these facilities. It is really important that we ground and center our understanding of both the harm and potential for a more dignified alternative in the lived experiences of those most impacted by these policies: the families themselves.

Laila Ayub, Special Projects Attorney with Family Detention Services at RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education), will be a panelist during the Sept. 22 webinar. (Photo courtesy of Laila Ayub)

Our panelists are Laila Ayub, Special Projects Attorney with Family Detention Services at RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education), which offers legal services to individuals detained at the Karnes family immigration prison in Texas.  Her work includes assisting in litigation, leading advocacy projects and advocating alongside detained individuals with the goal of obtaining their release from detention, and ultimately abolishing the practice of immigrant detention. Pastor Linda Theophilus is an ELCA pastor from Pittsburgh and a member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition.  Linda has been a strong advocate for refugees and immigrants.

Giovana Oaxaca is my co-moderator for the webinar. She is the Program Director for Migration Policy at the ELCA and co-chair of the Asylum & Detention Working Group of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition.

Q: In terms of advocacy, what are the most productive things people can do to address this issue? Is there current legislation we need to be speaking out about?

A: Ultimately we need an immigration reform bill that ends family detention. It costs over $300 per person, per day to detain someone in a family prison. While family incarceration continues, millions of tax dollars are spent abusing migrants that could instead be invested in our communities. Instead of locking them up, relatives or sponsors are ready to receive families free from the irrevocable harm of imprisonment.

Pastor Linda Theophilus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will also participate in the Sept. 22 webinar. (Photo by Mateo Toro)

The Freedom for Families Act was introduced at the end of April which would end government funding of family detention centers. Because this is appropriations season, when Congress passes the bills to fund government operations, we are urging Congress to eliminate family detention funding in Fiscal Year 2022 (which starts in October). We will also hear about vigils and other actions people are taking around the country to pray together and urge our government to divest from imprisoning families and to invest in our communities.

Q: Is there anything we have not asked about that you would like people to know?

A: PDA believes that this is so important for people to understand that we are starting work on a new documentary film about family detention. Through PDA’s Story Ministry we hope to really shed light on the harm caused to the families and our communities by detention and the opportunities for all of us when we invest in a more humane and dignified welcome.

I would like to give the last words to Lorena*, a mother who was held for over a year at Berks County Family Detention Center. She spoke at a press conference last April:

I ask the President with all respect to please put a stop to detention at Berks. And that you should not lock someone up regardless of their origin, their race, their color, their religion. And that it causes great harm to the families. I say this from personal experience. I was there for more than a year, almost two [years]. And it has cost me a lot to try to get over it, I don’t even like to remember it.

For this reason, I ask that we join together and that we don’t allow more families to be held in that place.

My wish is that we could use the detention center for good works but not as a jail. Because it is true that we came with trauma from our own country, only to end up in another place with another trauma. My wish, with all my heart, is that the center be closed and that not one family, not one child, is there because it is difficult to be there. Thank you very much.

*Lorena is a pseudonym for an asylum seeker.

“Welcoming the Stranger: Freedom for Families” will be presented at noon Eastern Time on Wednesday, Sept. 22 on Zoom and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Facebook page. Live Spanish translation will be available on Zoom.

Gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to support Refugee and Asylum ministries.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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