In his speech, President Obama explained that whether our ancestors crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, “we were strangers once, too.” President Obama’s invitation to Americans to welcome the stranger echoes God’s call to Christians. While I commend President Obama’s action to delay the deportation of roughly four million undocumented immigrants, as Christians, we are called to further action. God calls Christians to welcome the stranger, but also to “proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners.” (Isa. 61:1)
I believe this quotation from the prophet Isaiah is a profoundly literal calling. Jesus did not only proclaim liberty to those suffering captivity to sin, but also to those suffering physical imprisonment. At the very outset of His ministry, Jesus could have chosen to read any passage from the prophets to set the stage for His ministry; he chose to read Isaiah 61 and proclaim release to the captives. (Luke 4:18-19) This proclamation resonates throughout the Bible, most notably in the accounts of miraculous deliverance from prison in Acts 5, 12, and 16.
In Acts 16, God freed not only his servant Paul, but also all who were imprisoned in the jail, as “all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.” (Acts 16:26) God does not free a few captives so that the governing authorities can fill the prisons with new captives; rather, God renounces the power of prison and unmasks its injustice entirely. Indeed, Paul refused to be released from prison secretly (Acts 16:37), possibly in an effort to prevent future imprisonment of others by bearing witness to his own unlawful captivity as a Roman citizen.
While I am relieved and grateful that President Obama finally has kept his promise to address our broken immigration system, the President’s actions will not set the captives free. The President’s actions will only serve to delay detention and deportation for a few, while continuing to fill a Congressional quota that requires 34,000 people to be locked up in immigration detention each day.
Just two days before the President announced his executive action on immigration, the Obama Administration confirmed that it is contracting with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to open a 2,400-bed family detention facility in Dilley, Texas—the largest immigration detention facility to date. The U.S. government is increasingly detaining migrant children and their parents for months and even years in prisons run by corporations such as CCA and GEO Group.
Unless we hear God’s calling and choose to respond appropriately, thousands of children and adults will celebrate their birthday in U.S. immigration detention next year. Ten-year-old Ana, nine-year-old Victor, and two-year-old Martín already have spent six months with their mother at the Karnes County Family Detention Center in Texas. This means that Martín has spent a fourth of his little life now behind bars. President Obama’s action does not help these children.
President Obama’s action also does not help Sylvester Owino, who currently is detained in Alabama, having spent the last nine years of his life in civil immigration detention. The President’s action does not help Yu Wang, who spent a year in detention before being deported, although his wife and young daughter are U.S. citizens. President Obama’s action does not help Marcela Castro, an asylum seeker who spent her first 180 nights in the United States in a county jail to satisfy Congress’s lock up quota. Unless we hear God’s calling and choose to respond with grace, over 34,000 people like Sylvester, Yu, and Marcela will continue to languish in immigration detention today.
This past Sunday, I attended Catholic mass with my family at Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara, California. The homily was not about immigration, but it reminded me of the pain our broken immigration system has caused so many children and adults. Fr. Samuel shared a story about a young boy who lost his parents in a car crash. God spoke to this young boy, saying, “I understand your pain for I have cried with you.”
I imagine God cried with Marcela, Yu, and Sylvester. Although we cannot stop car crashes from separating families, we can stop immigration detention. I have no doubt that we will eradicate immigration detention from this country because Jesus has proclaimed liberty for all who are imprisoned.
Christina Fialho is an attorney and the Co-Founder/Executive Director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a national nonprofit working to end the isolation and abuse of men, women, and children in U.S. immigration detention. Learn more at www.endisolation.org.
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