A Brewing Storm: The detention of illegal imigrants

Tragedy struck the family of Francisco-Javier Domínguez Rivera, a 22-year-old native of the State of Puebla in Mexico, in mid-January 2007. Francisco was shot to death by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while attempting to cross the desert between Bisbee and Douglas, Ariz. The agent reported that he had felt endangered while apprehending Francisco, his two brothers and his 19-year-old sister-in-law, who had crossed the border illegally.

Franciscos death was a distress signal for many concerned with justice for immigrants. It called to mind the thousands of migrant deaths in the desert in past years and the tragedies that arise from the current atmosphere of divisiveness, fear and vilification of migrants and Border Patrol agents alike.

Eucharist Behind Bars

A few days after the killing, 60 migrant men gathered to celebrate the Eucharist in a detention center 100 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border. Most were scheduled for deportation within a few days. Dressed like prisoners in identical red uniforms, they took part in the liturgy, reading and singing with devotion. Many of the men lined up after the Mass to receive a blessing for the journey. At the back of the room sat Franciscos two brothers in prayer and sorrow. The tearful pair, still in shock over their brothers death and worried about the fate of Franciscos sister-in-law, from whom they had been separated upon arrest, were totally disoriented by the detention environment. They were two simple men, their dreams of finding a new life now dashed, struggling to come to grips with why their brother had died.


Franciscos death and the subsequent incarceration of his family members highlight the suffering and loss surrounding the American detention drama. Responsibility for the operation of many detention centers is being delegated away from the federal government to for-profit corrections companies. Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and other advocates have become increasingly alarmed at the growing disregard for the human needs and the spiritual rights of undocumented migrants, whose only offense in many cases is crossing the border in pursuit of the American dream. Current immigration and detention policies have not deterred the steady flow of migrants crossing our border.

Detention Increase

The practice of detaining migrants has grown exponentially in the United States in the last decade. In 1994, the government held about 5,500 such detainees on any given day. That number is expected to reach 27,500 by fall 2007, and 62,000 by 2010. Even now some 250,000 people churn through the detention system each year. Most are deported to their point of origin. A lucky few are granted asylum or equitable relief from deportation and then released to a new life.

The U.S. detention program eats up approximately one third of the immigration enforcement budget, about $600 million annually. As a result, the detention of migrants is now a multimillion dollar business and a magnet for corporations in the private corrections industry.

Conditions vary widely in the contract facilities for detainees. A recent series of articles in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Houston Chronicle described the substandard conditions reported by advocates who visited a former jail in Southern Texas that now houses detained families. Ringed with razor wire and containing 300 penitentiary-style cots, the former county jail is operated by Corrections Corpora-tion of America. The office of the U.S. inspector general is in-vestigating some C.C.A. facilities after reports of detainee deaths, inappropriate disciplinary procedures and malnourishment of detained children. Under the terms of C.C.A.s contract with the U.S. government, however, this Texas facility need not comply with many of the standards originally set for federal immigration detention institutions. Why? Because the government defines the facilities as Inter-governmental Service Agreement contractors, a designation that robs the current administrative detention standards of teeth and allows these privately owned facilities to operate under a lower standard of care.

Detainees arrive in jails, detention centers, prisons and contract facilities for a variety of reasons. They include refugees fleeing persecution and war; men and women apprehended while working illegally in the United States as domestic servants, factory workers and migrant farmers; lawful permanent residents who have committed one-time, minor and nonviolent crimes; and a small minority (roughly 2 percent) who have served prison sentences for more serious crimes. Among them are many longtime residents with dependents who are U.S. citizens. Although the majority of immigrants in detention represent no danger to the community, all are detained like criminals.

Legal Limbo

The legal limbo into which detainees are placed adds to a paradox at the heart of current detention policy: While immigration detainees have often committed no worse offense than crossing a border or declaring the intention to seek asylum at a port of entry, they may be held indefinitely, without the same legal protection or access to counsel given U.S. citizens charged with serious crimes. Once apprehended, detainees must live behind bars or barbed wire with little control over their fate and no way to know when or how their ordeal will end. Some refugees live in terror of deportation into the hands of the governments that have persecuted them. Others, who are willing to go home, are prevented from doing so by a sluggish bureaucracy. Such frustration is reflected in the statement of a 17-year-old immigration detainee from Guatemala, held along with about 100 other undocumented migrants in a maximum-security prison in Virginia. The young man earnestly told me, I miss my family; I dont know why Im here. When they first caught me, they told me if I signed the papers admitting I was here illegally, I could go home. Its been four months now, and nothing.

Family Breakup

One of the most poignant episodes in the detention drama results from the lack of regard for family integrity, highlighted by the March 6, 2007, detention raids in New Bedford, Mass. In those raids, without any hearing or finding that people were in fact illegally working in Massachusetts, more than 100 workers were apprehended and almost immediately transferred to a facility in South Texas, with little regard for the rights of their family members, many of them U.S. citizens.

Such seemingly arbitrary transfers of detained persons away from their support networks and communities should be ended. Many long-term residents who have overstayed their visas or lived and worked quietly in the United States for years without documentation are being wrenched from their communities in sudden raids. Like those apprehended crossing the border, they are incarcerated in remote locations, far removed from legal service providers, making it impossible for them to understand fully or exercise their legal rights. In fact, 80 percent to 90 percent of the detainees face immigration proceedings without any legal representation.

One of the greatest indignities they suffer is depersonalization. A woman living in immigration detention reported, The worst thing is that the guards call me by my bed number. Here I have no name.

Honoring Religious Rights

In 2001 the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged the importance of providing detainees at the eight federal detention centers with spiritual counseling and support and the ability to exercise their religious rights. Not only is there a First Amendment basis for the provision of such services, but the management of these facilities also recognized the calming presence of chaplains.

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and Church World Service, with funding from D.H.S., started a chaplaincy program in the eight federal facilities. Based on a non-proselytizing model that is ecumenical in scope and practice, the chaplains promote courage, hope and peace of mind for those in detention. In addition to pastoral counseling, chaplains facilitate religious activities like worship, prayer, Scripture services and fellowship within the traditions of each persons faith. It is in the course of this work that the chaplains first come in contact with grief-stricken detainees like the Domínguez Rivera brothers. As the two traverse this critical point in their spiritual journey, they can depend on the fellowship and support offered by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA chaplaincy staff.

Others are not so lucky. Only eight detention centers are directly operated by the federal government. At the more than 400 non-federally operated detention facilities, the situation is very different. Like the South Texas center, these are effectively excused from many of the standards of care that apply to federal detention facilities, including not only the guarantee of religious care but also the prescribed amount of time given for meals and the quality of food service and health care.

A disturbing account of detention conditions emerged in 2001 following a visit by 18 religious leaders to a New York facility. The National Council of Churches reported that when the leaders emerged from a tour of an immigration detention center in a warehouse district near J.F.K. Airport[they] expressed shock that people seeking political asylum in the United States are held in worse than prison conditions. The right to asylum is guaranteed under U.S. and international law.

Public Scrutiny Needed

The expansion of immigration detention must be subject to a public scrutiny that recognizes the policys human and financial costs. A recent D.H.S. report by the inspector general, publicly released on Jan. 16, 2007, found many violations of the departments detention standardsviolations that the inspector general declared were not adequately tracked by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcements internal compliance reviews. Congress should follow up on the report and the well-documented failure of the B.I.C.E. internal review process. Above all, the routine use of immigration detention for asylum applicants and survivors of torture is inconsonant with international human rights principles and should be limited to the greatest extent possible. The delegation of detention services to contract facilities is a troubling trend, contributing to an erosion of respect for the human dignity and legal rights of detainees. The federal government should set high standards for the treatment of all immigration detainees, particularly asylum seekers and refugees, with zealous protection of their psychosocial, pastoral and legal support needs. As detainees struggle to cope with the despair and uncertainty of the detention experience, we should avoid treating them like criminals.

In their November 2000 statement Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, the Catholic bishops of the United States confirmed that the fundamental starting point for all of Catholic social teaching is the defense of human life and dignity: all people, regardless of race, gender, class or other human characteristics, have an inviolable dignity, value and worthwhich must be recognized, promoted, safeguarded and defended. More than simply a Catholic viewpoint, this perspective reflects a deeply rooted American belief, grounded in our finest civic traditions and endorsed across faith communities. It is a proud tradition that should be revisited as we consider the human implications of the rapidly expanding detention system. Simply put, tripling the number of people in immigration detention by 2010 is ill-advised and un-American.

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