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Evangelical leaders call for release of some detained immigrants to stop spread of COVID-19

detention center, immigrants
View of a temporary detention centre for illegal underage immigrants in Tornillo, Texas, US near the Mexico-US border, as seen from Valle de Juarez, in Chihuahua state, Mexico on June 18, 2018. |

Influential evangelicals are calling on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to utilize “alternatives to detention” and release some detained undocumented immigrants as they await their hearings so long as they don’t pose a threat to public safety.

Nine leaders of evangelical organizations aligned with the Evangelical Immigration Table — including the new National Association of Evangelicals President Walter Kim and Southern Baptist Convention ethicist Russell Moore — signed onto a letter sent Monday to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. 

They expressed concern about the wellbeing of staff and detainees in immigration detention centers nationwide as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues. 

“Our concern is rooted in our Christian belief that each human life is made in the image of God and thus precious, and, like you, we want to do everything possible to minimize the loss of life as a result of this pandemic,” the letter explains.

“Individuals who are held in detention facilities, which often hold a large number of beds within a constrained space, are effectively unable to practice the ‘social distancing’ advised by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to limit the spread the COVID-19.”

The letter goes on to state that while it may be necessary to continue detaining individuals who’ve been convicted of violent crimes and pose a threat to public safety, data obtained by Syracuse University suggests that the majority of individuals detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in recent years have no criminal conviction on record.

“In the interest of public health — for these detainees, for the staff of these facilities and for the general public — we encourage you to utilize alternatives to detention for individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,” the letter states.  “Detainees who are elderly or who may otherwise be uniquely vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19 are of particular concern.

“Expanding the use of alternatives to detention would provide those individuals who must remain in detention with more space, limiting the public health threat to them and to staff who work in these facilities, while allowing those who can be safely released to reside with family members, friends or hosts from local churches.”

According to the leaders, alternatives to detention (ATDs) have “proven highly effective in reducing the taxpayer expense of detention and assuring proper tracking of immigrants.”

The leaders encouraged the DHS to partner with churches and community organizations to "ensure that individuals who are released can find safe accommodations in which to ‘shelter in place.'"

"We pledge to encourage the many churches and ministries within our networks to provide any assistance they can," the letter asserts. 

In addition to Moore and Kim, the Evangelical Immigration Table letter was signed by Assemblies of God General Superintendent Doug Clay, Council for Christian Colleges & Universities President Shirley Hoogstra, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference President Samuel Rodriguez and Bethany Christian Services President Chris Palusky. 

The letter was also signed by Scott Arbeiter, president of the evangelical refugee resettlement agency World Relief; Jo Anne Lyon, the general superintendent emerita of the Wesleyan Church; and Hyepin Im, president of Faith and Community Empowerment. 

The letter doesn't state which alternatives to detention make the most sense. But Evangelical Immigration Table National Coordinator Matthew Soerens told The Christian Post that he thinks there is a "range of good options available."

"We’re not arguing that these individuals should not be required to go to court, but that there are more humane, cost-effective ways to ensure their compliance that don’t risk their — or others’ — health as this virus spreads," Soerens told CP. 

In the online version of the letter, the leaders define ATDs by linking to a fact sheet produced by the pro-immigration advocacy group National Immigration Forum.

The NIF contends that ATDs are “a fraction of the cost of detention” while ensuring that “upwards of 95 percent of individuals on ATDs attend required immigration hearings and appointments.”

GPS-tracking ankle monitors are already being used as alternatives to detention for immigrants who do not pose a flight or safety risk. 

Some advocates have proposed allowing non-violent immigrant detainees to take part in the Family Case Management Program, a DHS pilot program where families received caseworker support without having to wear ankle monitors. 

The program offered a way for humanitarian organizations to organize efforts to supervise asylum-seeking families as they await their immigration hearings. 

Through the program, case managers ensured that participants upheld their legal obligations as their cases proceed and required check-ins with ICE. The program, advocates say, achieved high levels of compliance throughout its two years with over 630 families enrolled. 

However, the program was halted by the Trump administration in 2017. 

“ICE’s formal but now terminated Family Case Management Program, for example, had compliance rates of 99 percent with immigration requirements such as court hearings and immigration appointments, at a cost of only $36 per day per family,” the National Immigration Forum reported.

Soerens, who also serves as World Relief's U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy, explained that the Family Case Management Program has been more cost-effective than detention while GPS-tracking ankle bracelets have also been a "more humane option."

"They allow an individual to stay isolated within his or her home, while still ensuring that they comply with their obligations to show up for court," he explained. 

"The only justification I’m aware of for detaining individuals who have not been convicted of any crime ... is that they might not show up for court if not detained, but the stats do not bear out that this is a common occurrence," Soerens wrote. 

Soerens cited data analyzed by the American Immigration Council to state that "more than 4 out of 5 individuals who are released have shown up for court."

"And, if they are tracked with an ankle bracelet, those who might not show up generally forfeit their case and can be quickly found," Soerens added. 

In their letter, the evangelical leaders thanked the administration for already releasing some vulnerable individuals from detention facilities.

As ABC News reports, federal authorities have begun reassessing protocols to release some detained immigrants as detention centers have seen a spike in coronavirus cases. 

The push for alternatives to detention gained steam in 2018 when there was widespread media coverage over the government’s practice of separating immigrant families at the border. 

In a statement, Hyepin Im stated that it is “unconscionable to detain so many individuals, especially when there are proven alternatives available.”

Arbeiter said in a statement that he recently visited a detention center where World Relief staff have long facilitated church services for detainees. 

“Most of those detained are either asylum seekers or are long-time residents of the U.S. awaiting a deportation hearing. Only a very small share have ever been convicted of a serious criminal offense,” Arbeiter said.

“These individuals, many of whom we have come to know as brothers and sisters in Christ, would not pose a public safety threat if released under supervision, but to continue to detain them — in conditions where social distancing is basically impossible — poses a public health threat to them, to the staff of these facilities and to the general public.”

According to a late March report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University, about 100,000 cases were added to the immigration court’s backlog since the beginning of the fiscal year 2020 with over 1.1 million cases pending before the court as of the end of February 2020. 

That number, the university reports, is up from over 542,000 cases when Trump assumed office in 2017.

A TRAC report from last November stated that there were over 50,000 people in immigration detention centers on the last day of April 2019. According to the clearinghouse, 64 percent (nearly 32,000) of those detainees “had no criminal conviction on record.”

“This is up from 10,000 — or just under 40 percent of the nationwide total — four years prior,” the TRAC report reads. “Over the same period, the total number of detainees with criminal convictions remained consistently between a low of 16,000 in March 2015 to a high of just over 19,000 in late 2017 and early 2018.”

A TRAC report from last December notes that the number of detained immigrants convicted of serious felonies has fallen from between 7,500 to 8,000 in 2017 to just above 6,000 in April 2019. 

“Those convicted of serious felonies have been replaced by an increasing number of detainees who have committed at most misdemeanors — what ICE labels as Level 3 offenses — such as unlawful entry or traffic-related violations,” the TRAC report explains. 

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