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A migrant family from Central America waits to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol after they crossed into the United States from Mexico on April 29, 2021 near Yuma, Arizona. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

A migrant family from Central America waits to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol after they crossed into the United States from Mexico on April 29, 2021 near Yuma, Arizona. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Faith Leaders, Rights Groups to Biden: End Immigration Detention

"People are losing their lives to a detention system that simply does not need to exist," said one immigrant rights advocate.

Kenny Stancil

In a letter delivered to the White House on Wednesday, a coalition of 900 faith leaders and dozens of immigrant rights groups denounced President Joe Biden for expanding the use of immigrant detention and urged his administration to immediately invest in community-based alternatives and improve access to asylum.

"We know effective community-based alternatives to detention exist."

With the one-year anniversary of Biden's inauguration approaching, the signatories—including Church World Service, Detention Watch Network, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, UCC National Collaborative on Immigration, and members of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition—implored the president and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to "reverse course" in the year ahead and end "overreliance on immoral and inhumane immigration detention."

"In the past few months," says the letter, "this administration has rapidly employed the use of detention and expulsions for recent arrivals seeking safety at our border. Consequently, the number of people in detention has sky-rocketed since [last] January, and nearly doubled in July."

Emphasizing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers "represent abuse, trauma, and sometimes death," Marcela Hernandez, organizing director of Detention Watch Network, said in a statement that "Biden's continued actions to expand the immigration detention system despite the administration's ongoing promises to end the use of for-profit detention and roll back ICE's fundamentally flawed system is shameful."

Biden's expansion of the immigrant detention system persists despite evidence that ICE facilities are "hotbeds of infection" that put detainees at heightened risk of falling ill with or dying from Covid-19.

"People are losing their lives to a detention system that simply does not need to exist," said Hernandez. "The Biden administration must shut down immigration detention facilities, end detention contracts, and release people from detention immediately."

Elissa Diaz, advocacy manager at Church World Service and co-chair of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, argued that "the values of President Biden's faith tradition are common across faith traditions represented in the Interfaith Immigration Coalition: to welcome the immigrant in our midst, to love our neighbors, and to proclaim freedom for the oppressed."

"President Biden's decision to expand immigrant detention not only goes against these values of our faith," said Diaz, "but also the promises he made to immigrants just one year ago."

Although one of Biden's earliest executive orders called for phasing out private prison contracts, advocates noted in their letter that "several private prisons, which criminal justice advocates have worked for years to close, are now being converted into facilities for detaining immigrants and asylum-seekers."

They continued:

The reopening of the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, a former Bureau of Prisons (BOP) jail, as a massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, the conversion and expansion of the Berks County Family Residential Center into an ICE adult facility for women, the conversion and expansion of Golden State Annex and Adelanto Annex, and the proposed expansion and contract extension of the El Paso Service Processing Center all undermine any progress made and go against early commitments and stated intentions to reduce reliance on immigration detention by Secretary Mayorkas.

Alluding to the core principles of their various faith traditions, the signatories stressed that "no matter where someone came from or how they arrived in the United States, their life is inherently valuable and they should be treated with dignity and respect."

Rev. Deborah Lee, executive director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, said in a statement that "one common theme in our diverse religious traditions is the value of human freedom: the right to live freely, to not face deprivation of movement and confinement. Immigration detention is not morally acceptable or necessary in any form."

"We know effective community-based alternatives to detention exist," said Lee. "People can navigate their immigration proceedings while living at home, maintaining their employment, and receiving support from their family and wider community. We ask the administration to stand with the faith community to find ways to reduce all forms of captivity in favor of non-carceral solutions."

In their letter, the coalition pointed out that "people attend their hearings at higher rates when supported by the community, and with access to proper support and legal representation."

To that end, the signatories called on Biden and Mayorkas to take the following steps:

  • Halt all other efforts to expand the ICE detention system through any new or extended ICE contracts; immediately terminate the contracts signed in November with Clearfield County for the Moshannon Valley facility and Berks County for the Berks facility;
  • Start the process of phasing out inhumane immigrant detention systems by terminating the First Ten contracts as expressed in an earlier faith letter, as well as those at Yuba County Jail, Adelanto ICE Processing Center, and the Otay Mesa Detention Center, as requested by 24 members of the California congressional delegation;
  • Apply the January 2021 Executive Order on privately operated prisons to end immigration detention contracts with private prison companies and local governments;
  • Take meaningful steps to dismantle the system of mass immigrant incarceration and the use of detention for asylum processing;
  • Move to restore access to asylum at the U.S. southern border by ending the CDC Title 42 policy and the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) "Remain in Mexico" program; and halt all deportations and expulsions to Haiti; and
  • Commit to reducing funding for ICE and CBP for FY 2023—funding that could be reallocated for voluntary community-based resettlement services, a rights-respecting border management approach that protects the right of people to seek legal protection in the U.S., ensuring safe and regular processes to migrate, and strengthening families and communities through investments in education, housing, green infrastructure, and healthcare.

In a separate statement issued on Wednesday, Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the nation's largest faith-based nonprofit dedicated exclusively to serving refugees, asylum-seekers, and other vulnerable immigrant groups, shared her assessment of immigration policy during the Biden administration's first year in office and made similar demands for improvement.

"We are grateful for President Biden's repeal of the Muslim ban, for expanding programs to welcome Afghan evacuees, for reunited migrant families, and for good-faith efforts to protect DACA recipients and other vulnerable individuals from detention and deportation," said O'Mara Vignarajah.

"Unfortunately," she said, "the same Trump-era policies that subjected asylum-seekers to dangerous conditions and hasty expulsions without due process remain devastatingly in effect. There is simply no substantive reason that we cannot process and welcome these individuals and families in accordance with our obligations under U.S. and international law."
 
"The Biden administration must recognize the urgency of this moment," O'Mara Vignarajah continued. "Migrants in desperate need of protection should not be forced to suffer yet another year of Title 42 and 'Remain in Mexico.' Refugee families who have waited years for stability should not face yet another year of historically low admissions. Vulnerable asylum-seekers should not be detained yet another year by private prison companies profiteering to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars."

She added that 2022 should be the year the Biden administration "delivers on its promises to rebuild and reimagine a fair, efficient, and humane immigration system."


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