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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 111, December 2009




H.E. Most Reverend John C. Wester

Bishop of Salt Lake City, Utah

Chairman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration


I have been asked to speak to the issue of detention and pastoral care, an issue I know impacts all of us, wherever we may reside. I would like to share with you our experience in the United States, which, over the past decade, has been a challenging one.

Since the attacks on the United States in 2001, the U.S. government has turned to the detention of immigrants as another weapon against the “war on terrorism.” This, as well as some anti-immigrant sentiment, has resulted in policies that require the incarceration of immigrants, asylum-seekers, and other newcomers to the United States.

In fact, immigrant detention beds have grown more than 200 percent since 2000 and federal prison construction represents one of the largest growth areas in the federal budget. The U.S. government detains over 280,000 persons a year, more than triple the number of those detained just nine years ago. They are detained in detention centers, local jails, and contract facilities at the cost of $1.2 billion per year. Among immigrant detainees are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

Combined with an onerous law passed in 1996, the United States employs a mandatory detention policy toward immigrants, where the presumption is that an undocumented immigrant, an asylum-seeker, or other entrants should be incarcerated rather than released. Whereas in the past an undocumented immigrant might be released prior to deportation hearings, now he is detained. An asylum-seeker, fleeing persecution, is now often detained for months before an asylum hearing is scheduled.

To compound matters, during the last year and a half of the Bush Administration, the U.S. government conducted massive enforcement raids across the country, resulting in family members – usually parents –being detained and eventually deported. In addition, local law enforcement personnel have been authorized to detain immigrants, something that was not prevalent a decade ago.

Of course, the Catholic Church has advocated for changes in these detention laws and enforcement actions, but with limited success. As the large number of immigrants now detained in prisons, both federal and local, have increased, the challenges for providing them pastoral care has also increased.

The conditions of detention can lead to depression and physical ailments and lack of medical care. There have recently been reports of detainees dying in U.S. prisons or local jails for lack of proper medical care. In many cases, even children are detained for long periods of time, despite laws which require that they be placed in the least restrictive setting.

In order to change these situations, we must advocate the following principles before our governments:

  1. Avoid the use of detention and seek alternatives to detention, especially for those who are not convicted of a crime, are not a threat to the community, and are not flight risks. Detention should be time limited.
  2. Do not detain individuals simply because they apply for asylum –particularly vulnerable individuals like children, pregnant women, and the handicapped.
  3. Do not use the threat of detention to deter those fleeing persecution from seeking asylum.
  4. Permit access to detention facilities by civil organizations, religious organizations, and legal representatives.
  5. Conditions of detention should meet international standards, including access to legal counsel, health care, education, and adequate food and water.

In the United States, church representatives have had a difficult time gaining access to detainees to perform pastoral care services and to perform the sacraments. Jesuit Refugee Services has advocated with the federal government for better access and better care for detainees, but have had some difficulty gaining access to detainees for pastoral purposes. This is because different areas, and different enforcement directors, have different policies.  Religious orders have also experienced the same problems in some areas.

Specifically, JRS and others have found that detainees in the United States do not have adequate opportunity to worship in detention facilities and do not have access to religious literature, such as the Bible or Koran.  They normally do not have access to a religious leader of their own faith to comfort them, as well. Priests have sometimes been forbidden from saying Mass - in one case, the use of the wine was objected to, with the excuse that the detainees could get access to a large quantity of wine.

The Church must insist that access to detention and to detainees is provided, so that:

  1. The sacraments can be administered on a consistent basis;

  2. Priests and religious can ensure that detainees are not suffering and are receiving adequate treatment;

  3. Appropriate spiritual direction is given to the detainees; and that

  4. Family members are apprised of the status of the detainee, including health-care, treatment, etc.

In the United States, we are working to ensure these rights. JRS and other groups have attempted to pass legislation ensuring detainee access to religious services and pastoral care.

The ultimate solution, however, to this challenge is the passage and enactment of comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the U.S. Congress. The U.S. bishops have been advocating for this legislation for years, so that undocumented persons can gain legal status, asylum-seekers are treated with dignity, and future migrants can obtain work visas.

We are hopeful that within the next year or two, immigration reforms will pass and the status of millions of people will be regularized. This will keep many out of detention and with a chance to live a normal life.