Catholic and Lutheran bishops on Friday urged the federal government to release illegal immigrant families who have been detained awaiting deportation, saying it is “shameful” for the federal government to keep them in detention.
The religious leaders visited the new facility the Obama administration opened in Dilley, Texas, to hold the tens of thousands families that are surging across the border this year, and declared it a blight on the “moral character” of the U.S.
“After this visit, my primary question is: Why? Why do we eel compelled to place in detention such vulnerable individuals?” said Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, whose San Antonio archdiocese includes the Dilley facility.
The Obama administration, caught off guard by the surge, ended up releasing most of the illegal immigrants from Central American that streamed across the border last year, sinking President Obama’s hopes of passing an immigration law. Early statistics suggested that few of the illegal immigrants released were showing up for their deportation hearings, instead absconding into the interior of the U.S. to join the 11 million-strong illegal immigrant population.
Homeland Security officials scrambled to adjust, setting up temporary detention facilities to try to keep the families in custody, which makes it far easier to deport them once a judge approves that decision. The Dilley facility was eventually opened as the key place where families would be housed while awaiting decisions.
The Catholic bishops said the government should use alternatives to detention. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo said the mothers and children suffer “emotional and physiological harm” from being detained, and called it “a stain on the administration’s record on immigration.”
But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the detention facility in congressional testimony Thursday, saying the building in Dilley is an improvement over earlier iterations and that it’s helped stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
“I believe that the expansion of the family unit space, frankly, is a good thing. Many people don’t agree with it, but I believe it was a good thing,” he told the House Appropriations Committee. “I think that what we did in expanding the family unit detention space and capability there was important in our overall efforts to address the spike we saw last summer.”
Dilley will eventually be able to accommodate up to 2,400 family members, but even still, most families are still being released rather than being held, Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said he does also believe alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring or asking illegal immigrants to check in regularly, works in many instances. But he said the government needs to have the ability to detain more than just 85 family members, which was its capacity before last summer’s surge.
Nearly 70,000 families were caught illegally crossing the southwest border in fiscal year 2014. The pace has slackened this year, Mr. Johnson said — but the country is still on track for its second-highest year on record.