Why Detention is No Place for Families and How We Can End It


Text by guest blogger Clarissa Perkins

Photo by LIRS.org. 


“Mommy no, mommy no.” The little boy curled up on the floor and sobbed, hands over his ears, as his mother retold her story of horrendous sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and persistent gang threats for the umpteenth time. They had been in family immigration detention in the United States for seven months, shuffled from the Karnes detention center to the Dilley detention center. During that time, the little boy suffered from diarrhea, lost weight, and despite having witnessed brutality, never received psychological counseling or treatment. Only a few years old, he had no daycare to distract him while his mother told and retold her story. Yet she had no choice. Telling her story was the only way she could secure asylum, and safety, for her and her son.

This testimony comes from Eileen Sterlock, an attorney who volunteered for detained families through the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

Unfortunately, this is a scenario that is seen time and time again in family immigration detention centers in the United States. Families who suffered severe trauma are forced to re-live their horrific pasts. Children are left to subsist in environments that thwart learning, growth, stability, and security. More than 1,000 mothers and children are currently locked in this existence in our nation’s detention centers, with numbers expected to rise to 3,700. Over 90% of these families fled to the United States seeking protection from violence. Instead of protection, they are treated as criminals. Even their shoelaces are taken from them in detention. Our staff at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has heard of babies baptized in detention and the average age of detained children is only six.

Beyond the essential inhumanity of locking up children, it is also expensive. Family detention costs $343 per person, per day. Meanwhile, successful alternatives to detention exist that cost $.17 to $7 per person, per day. Migrants that are given alternatives to detention have a near perfect score of showing up at their scheduled court hearings. Nevertheless, family detention is pursued by our government.


Our bottom line message at LIRS is simple: detention is no place for families, and family detention must end. In order to send this message clearly to Congress, we recently launched a card writing initiative. Our supporters are filling out postcards to their elected officials. Since we started the campaign a week ago, we’ve received more than 80 cards. Supporters’ messages range in length and detail. One man wrote simply, “Please end this madness,” while another said, “As a Christian, I beg you to work to end the detention of families fleeing violence in their home countries. Please work to provide sanctuary, welcome and safe haven here.” And yet another wrote, “What gives you the right to destroy families? That’s a rhetorical question. Answer: Nothing and No one.” The campaign has sparked bigger conversations, about the need to visit immigrants in detention, and to have direct conversations with elected officials. We will deliver these honest and heartfelt messages to Congress, with the hope that each will chip away at this archaic practice.

As an organization founded in faith, we take comfort in the Hebrews verse 13.2-3 that reads, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

It is our hope that Congress can find meaning in this verse and give these families the protection they desperately need.

To write a message to your Congressman or woman, visit LIRS.org/endfamilydetention.


Clarissa Perkins is the Creative Services Project Manager for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership helping migrants and refugees rebuild their lives in the United States.

Learn more at LIRS.org. Follow us on Twitter at @LIRSorg and on Facebook at facebook.com/LIRSorg.