Evangelical Group: Indefinitely Detaining Migrant Children Is Wrong

An evangelical Christian organization is criticizing the Trump administration’s plan to allow federal agencies to indefinitely detain migrant families who illegally cross the border.

World Relief, a faith-based humanitarian aid group, is insisting that children should not be kept in “jail-like” detention facilities while courts review their families’ asylum cases ― a process that could take months or even years. 

“Even in the best of conditions with the best of intentions, children do not belong in detention,” Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization told HuffPost. 

He pointed to the fact that the U.S. now depends on foster care, instead of orphanages, to care for children who can’t live with their biological parents. 

“We know that holding kids in a facility for significant amounts of time is harmful to them,” Soerens. “They should be in school, playing with friends being nurtured by their parents whenever possible.”

In this Dec. 11, 2018, file photo, an asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway after arriving from an immi

In this Dec. 11, 2018, file photo, an asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway after arriving from an immigration detention center to a shelter in San Diego.

World Relief is urging fellow Christians to contact their local members of Congress to speak out against the new detainment policy, which is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Friday. 

American evangelicals’ concern for asylum-seekers should be rooted in the Bible’s teachings, Soerens said. 

“We believe that all human beings are made in God’s image and thus that all human life has dignity and value, so we have to stand up for asylum laws designed to ensure that our government never sends any person back to a situation where they could be harmed or even killed,” he said.

“That does not mean we let everyone in – not everyone is in that category,” he added. “But it means we must offer due process, and treat everyone humanely in the process, which excludes detaining children for long periods of time.”

The Trump administration’s move seeks to end the 1997 Flores agreement, a court settlement that established basic standards for migrant children in the government’s care. The administration’s new rule would allow the government to detain migrant children indefinitely rather than for 20 days, which is the current limit.  

The rule, which still needs to be approved by a federal judge, is likely to immediately face court challenges. Experts say Immigration and Customs Enforcement also faces logistical hurdles ― it doesn’t yet have the bed space to accommodate the record-numbers of families crossing into the U.S.

The White House’s new strategy aims to deter Central American parents from crossing into the United States with their children.

But Soerens insists that there are more “humane” alternatives to indefinite detention ― such as family case management programs, where migrants live outside detention centers and are assigned social workers to help them navigate the court system, secure housing and schooling for their kids.

Outside of detention, asylum-seekers are often supported by extended family members and by local churches and nonprofits. It’s also easier for these migrants to access legal services, which could be crucial to their asylum cases.

A TRAC Immigration study found that most migrant families released from custody ― especially those who have legal representation ― show up for their court hearings. 

In this Sunday, June 17, 2018, file photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custo

In this Sunday, June 17, 2018, file photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who’ve been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States rest in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas. 

World Relief is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group for many evangelical denominations. World Relief is one of nine nonprofits that partner with the State Department to help refugees resettle in the U.S. The organization works with local churches throughout the country to provide legal aid and other assistance to asylum-seekers and asylees. 

However, World Relief’s welcoming stance towards asylum seekers may not be shared by many evangelicals in the pews ― particularly white evangelicals. Unlike members of any other major religious group, the majority of white evangelicals believe immigrants represent a threat to American customs and values (57%), according to a 2018 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. The survey also found many are supportive of President Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall along the southern U.S. border (67%). According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of white evangelicals surveyed also claim the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees. 

Soerens said he believes many evangelicals haven’t thought through what the Bible has to say about asylum-seekers.

Policies that effectively keep immigrants from entering the U.S. pending their asylum hearings actually limit the ability of local churches to “show love to their newest neighbors” and practice “biblical hospitality,” Soerens said. These policies could also have an impact on one of evangelicals’ most central and defining missions, Soerens suggested ― the evangelization of the Gospel. 

“It limits our ability to follow the biblical command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ because most American Christians are less likely to interact with people of different nationalities when they’re kept out of the U.S. or held in a detention facility that normal citizens cannot access,” he said.

Photos and decorations cover the walls of a dormitory at the U.S. government's newest holding center for migrant children in

Photos and decorations cover the walls of a dormitory at the U.S. government’s newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, Tuesday, July 9, 2019. 

Last summer, as news spread that the Trump administration was separating migrant children from their parents, leading voices within the American evangelical Christian community began speaking out ― including some who are usually strongly supportive of President Donald Trump’s policies.

The “zero-tolerance” family separation policy was later rescinded. 

Soerens said he hopes the American evangelical community will respond similarly to the administration’s latest policy move. 

 “I hope we see a significant number of evangelical Christians insisting that this change is not acceptable, because we believe that children need to be protected and not indefinitely detained.”