Immigration Detention: “Have We Not Learned the Lessons?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. When I was still practicing law, I volunteered to go to South Texas to assist an immigration project called Casa de Proyecto Libertad. This amazing group of lawyers and their staff worked tirelessly to provide legal representation for people detained who had come into the United States through the Mexican border. Many were refugees from Central American countries seeking asylum. They fled their home countries for fear of being persecuted for their opposition to the repressive governments that were in power.

I arrived to prepare a lawsuit designed to require the United States government to return a man who had been illegally deported to his home country of Guatemala. For my orientation, I was taken to see the detention facility where those who had entered the United States without proper documentation were being detained. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What I saw was a huge refugee camp. It looked like a small city. Like something you would see in a remote area across the ocean where refugees were housed in less than desirable conditions. But in the United States?

Then and Now

That was 20 years ago. I just read a blog in the Huffington Post written by former Delaware Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was a recent presidential hopeful. He wrote, “Today, yes today, the United States of America maintains the largest system of immigration detention camps of any nation on the planet. Not North Korea, not Yemen, not the People’s Republic of China, but us. Have we not learned the lessons of our shameful internment of Japanese Americans, of Irish immigrants, of our turning away of those fleeing the Holocaust in Nazi Germany?”

When I attended Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., in 2015, I learned of something called “the immigration bed mandate.” This was legislation that required funding in the U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) budget to maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds to be filled daily. The motivation was to ensure that the privately contracted detention facilities received minimum funding for running these facilities. It was interpreted to require ICE to keep at least 34,000 people in detention every day. It became known as the “detention bed mandate.”

These policies are a reflection of how we are treating those coming to our shores and across our borders seeking comfort and peace from places of violence and chaos. We are detaining immigrant and refugee families with small children with little or no due process. Apparently, our detention-as-a-deterrent policies have not changed in the 20 years since I visited Texas. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

You know it’s gotten worse (and almost laughably, if it weren’t true) when, quoting Gov. O’Malley, “an American immigration judge under oath claimed that he had been able to teach three- and four-year-old refugee children—who could not speak English—how to represent themselves in judicial proceedings.”

Oh, my! Those who follow Jesus know that our Savior and his parents were refugees themselves as they fled to Egypt for safety. We also know that at the heart of the Gospel is a mandate that’s not a “detention bed mandate.” Rather, a mandate to care for the least of those among us. Children and families detained for indefinite periods of time, sometimes to meet quotas, is not the America these folks expected to find when they escaped oppression.

Seeking Justice

So, what to do? In his article, O’Malley summarizes the American Bar Association’s proposal to address this injustice. You can find those recommendations here.

Read about these reasonable recommendations and then contact your congressional representatives and ask why these recommendations haven’t been put into place. Pray for these families, most of whom have fled from horrific circumstances, only to be locked up and often returned to those circumstances without due process of law. O’Malley concludes his blog by writing, “This is an outrage and should shock the conscience of all Americans.” I hope you agree.

Followers of Jesus cannot sit by and let this happen to those for whom we have been asked to provide comfort and care. If your church is not actively involved in welcoming refugee families into your community, now is the time to begin. Just contact Disciples Home Missions, Refugee and Immigration Ministries.

I left Harlingen, Texas, those 20 years ago, after our initial hearing before the federal judge who eventually ordered the unprecedented return of our client to the United States. When justice is sought for those who have mistreated, God finds a way. May we be the way….

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Rev. Dean Bucalos serves as part-time Mission Specialist for NBA Prison and Jail Ministries. Connect with Dean by email at