The Ursula migrant detention facility in McAllen, Texas, in June 2018. Photo by Customs and Border Protection/Creative Commons

Immigrants in detention don’t deserve a death sentence

(RNS) — Early Sunday morning, a federal court judge ordered immigration authorities to begin to release children in detention to protect them from coronavirus contagion. Those of us who pastor immigrant congregations rejoiced, but we also know that many vulnerable adults remain in detention and at severe risk.

The majority of these people are not violent criminals but brothers and sisters caught in a bureaucratic nightmare: In one California detention center with a history of being cited for inadequate medical treatment are a pastor with kidney problems who came to this country at age two, a young Russian woman who is seeking asylum (and suffers from asthma) and a grandfather from El Salvador seeking asylum who has diabetes.

Now they wait as the freight train of coronavirus heads their way.

This population of detainees is really no different from the homeless that many congregations have stepped up to help, working with municipalities to find them shelter and caring for their needs. They are hardworking people, contributors to our churches and communities, who have fallen between the cracks of our broken immigration system. Our faith and our moral compass compel us to help them as we would any of our neighbors.

Together we must do more to call on federal officials to protect the most vulnerable of detainees.

That is why more than 20 national Latino Christian leaders, representing thousands of congregations across the country, have signed a letter to the acting secretary of Homeland Security asking that the most vulnerable detainees who represent no threat to public safety be released. We have pledged our support in finding appropriate lodging for those without family.


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The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Evangelical Latino Coalition, reminds us that, "In this Easter Season, in the midst of a global pandemic our humanity and faith lead us to advocate for compassionate and humane policies for immigrants who may be vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19."

Detainees talk on the phones at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

At a time when jails and prisons are releasing inmates, it makes sense to extend the same precautions to detained immigrants. According to the National Immigration Forum, alternatives to detention, such as monitored ankle bracelets in immigration cases, have over a 90% success rate in compliance with attendance at court.

"From both a moral and practical standpoint, it makes sense to allow elderly detainees and those with underlying health conditions to be placed into a process of electronic monitoring or other alternative to detention,” said Robert Chao Romero, associate professor of Chicano studies at UCLA.

Chao Romero pointed to alternatives to detention such as the federal government’s Family Case Management Program, which costs less than $10 a day and has a success rate of as high as 99%.

Crossing the border without authorization, particularly to legally request asylum, should not be a death sentence. Yet for detainees who are at risk of being infected with the coronavirus, it could be just that.

Acting now to protect the lives of these our brothers and sisters would send a message that the current administration is serious about promoting a culture of life. The lives of our brothers and sisters in detention centers are as precious as any others.

We are praying for the men and women making decisions at every Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in the country that they will use their legal discretion to provide timely access to humanitarian parole to vulnerable detainees in order to save their lives. We know that some are quietly stepping forward. We need policies that support them — now.

(The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra is on the steering committee of the Matthew 25 Movement and assistant professor of intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. The Rev. Carlos L. Malave is executive director of Christian Churches Together. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)