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Immigration Issues

Family Detention and Family Separation


Letters and Statements from the Stated Clerk(s)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Policy
Film Unmasks the Inhumanity of Family Detention
Enforcement Policies & Practices
Root Causes of Migration
Physical & Psychological Effects
Worship Resources
Take Action


Understanding that we profess a faith in Jesus who entered the world a refugee fleeing Herod, the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been making policy in support of refugees and asylum seekers since 1947. When the U.S. Government began detaining asylum-seeking families in 2014, the Reverend Gradye Parsons, then Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), applied decades of policy to speak out in support of the release of asylum seekers and the end of family detention. As this sinful policy continues today and has worsened with the separation of families, the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, current Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), continues to speak out against this practice.

July 19, 2018  Ecumenical statement signed by 600 leaders, To threaten families who are fleeing harm and legally seeking protection at our borders with family separation, incarceration, and prosecution is immoral and unjust.
June 28, 2018 Families, to save the lives of their children, are arriving at the southern border of the U.S. just as the Holy Family arrived in Egypt. They are not finding refuge from the many ‘Herods’ that threaten life in this era.
June 16, 2018 How have we wandered so far from Jesus’ kind admonition, ‘Let the little children come to me…’”
May 13, 2018  We have a choice. ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ Collectively, we can strive for a nation that values all mothers—those born in this nation, those invested in this nation, and those just arriving.
January 11, 2016 This nation, if it is to keep its moral integrity, must end family detention, reform the asylum process to afford due process, and end the raids of the households of families who have fallen victim to a system that guaranteed their failure.
September 22, 2015 The U.S. government must stop locking in detention centers refugees and asylees arriving daily at the U.S.-Mexico border. Their plight is no different than the scores of refugees and asylees arriving in Europe ...
August 6, 2015  “This Administration’s treatment of persons seeking protection from Central America flies in the face of how we understand ourselves as global neighbors. ...
July 16, 2015  “We remain firm in our stance that it is inhumane to hold women and children, who have committed no crime, in detention centers or restrict their liberty in other ways for any length of time. ...
June 15, 2015  “Refugee outreach and advocacy is in the DNA of Presbyterians. We profess a faith in Christ whose family fled to Egypt with him as a newborn to protect him from being killed by Herod. ...
May 27, 2015  “Persons of faith and persons of conscience, however, made a different decision. They decided to welcome these families fleeing from violence. I am writing today to thank the thousands of people who chose welcome over prison ...



Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Policy

223rd General Assembly (2018)   Call upon the federal government to immediately end the newly implemented zero-tolerance policy that is tearing apart families. Call upon the federal government to reunite parents and children that have been separated as soon as possible, under the care of the community, not in family detention ensuring access of attorneys to those in detention.
222nd General Assembly (2016)  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses our deep concern for the well-being of the refugee children, families, and all migrants currently arriving at our borders, as well as those struggling to live within our borders.
222nd General Assembly (2016)  Recognizes that offering sanctuary is one way in which Presbyterians are living out the Gospel call to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger, including but not limited to: advocacy to end family detention; visitation programs for detained immigrants; advocacy and organizing to stop the criminalization of immigrants.”




During the summer of 2014, more families from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador arrived in the United States than in any other year. Though the majority of these families were seeking protection, our government’s response was to engage in contracts with private prison companies and to increase the country’s family detention bed capacity from 85 to 4,000. 

FAMILIES HELD CAPTIVE from Office of the General Assembly on Vimeo.

In May of 2015, members of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) went to Southern Texas to visit the families as they were released and to visit the ministries serving and advocating for them. During this trip, OGA created the film, Families Held Captive. Advocates then and now decry this use of enforcement against asylum-seekers and children. Legal challenges have resulted in minor changes in the practice, but the government persists in detaining families and prioritizing their removal hearings as they arrive and ask for protection at the southern border.

Use the discussion leader (PDF) and attendee guides (PDF) to show this film to your church or community group today.

Watch, share, and learn more about how you can #EndFamilyDetention.



Enforcement Policies and Practices

ICE Facility

Detention has been a tool used by many administrations to incarcerate those who cross the border into the United States without authorization or proper documentation. Different practices have been implemented along the way, but in 2014, the Obama administration authorized a significant increase in the use of family detention to address the increased numbers of family units fleeing northern Central America and asking for asylum in the United States. During that time beds available to family units went from a less than a hundred to more than 3,700 (US Detention of Families Seeking Asylum. Human Rights First, 2015).

Lawsuits were filed against the Obama administration for not following the requirements set in the original Flores v Reno case about detaining children for long periods of time. Out of those cases, a new ruling, Flores v Lynch, outlined new standards in which children, unless under extreme cases, must be released from detention within twenty days. In response to that ruling, the Obama administration’s policy and practice was to release the entire family unit within that twenty days to attend court hearings as their immigration cases came up.

Under the current administration, we witness increased enforcement efforts meant to again deter families from seeking safety and protection in the United States. New practices established under the “zero-tolerance” policy leans on detention just like previous administrations. However, knowing the restrictions established under the Flores agreement, the new policy is to charge all unauthorized border crossings as a criminal offense. Parents are therefore charged with a criminal offense that places them in the criminal court system necessitating the separation from their children. The Flores agreement was upheld and then strengthened by the court’s decision regarding Ms. L. et al. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), et al., which states that family separation was a violation of a parent’s right to family integrity. That decision forced the administration to reunite children with their parents. The administration announced plans to end family separation in an executive order in June of 2018, but the new plan is to incarcerate families and children together for much longer periods and increase family detention bed capacity to 12,000. Even with this new plan to end the separation of families, we are still very aware that hundreds of children remain in Health and Human Service’s custody because parents have been deported and they cannot find them, or extenuating circumstances keep children from being returned to family.

Criminalizing border crossings is still a policy. Customs and Border Protection continues to make it nearly impossible to reach a port of entry in the United States to ask for asylum. Congress and DHS continue to offer long-term family detention as a solution forcing families, who are seeking asylum, to handle their legal case within a detention center.

Facing Walls: USA and Mexico’s Violations of the Rights of Asylum-Seekers (Amnesty International)

Detaining Families: A Study of Asylum Adjudication in Family Detention (American Immigration Council)



Root Causes of Migration

 The Department of Homeland Security holds parents and children in detention and prioritizes their removal cases to deter future migrants. This practice discounts the violence families face in their home countries. The migration of those seeking protection must be viewed bearing in mind the root causes of their flight if it is to be responded to lawfully and humanely.





Physical and psychological Effects

Refugee family resting while traveling to seek asylum.

Children suffer emotionally, physically, and developmentally in prison. The family dynamic is undermined as children watch parents, their typical protectors and authority figures, being subjected to the authority of detention guards. Medical professionals, American Academy of Pediatrics, University of Texas Medical Branch, and medical professionals contracted by the Department of Homeland Security to assess family detention, all agree that this practice should be ended because of the harms that it places on children and families.

Letter to the Senate from medical professionals contracted by DHS to assess care at family detention centers Dr. Scott Allen and Dr. Pamela McPherson
Letter to Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson American Academy of Pediatrics
Family Detention in Berks County, Pennsylvania Human Rights First
I Know an American ‘Internment’ Camp When I See One ACLU blog post by Satsuki Ina
Detention of Women, Children Must End Says Catholic Sister op-ed by interim chaplain at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas




 Worship Resources

As people of faith, we take seriously the call to welcome the stranger and stand in solidarity with our Central American brothers and sisters. Use these resources to lift-up families seeking protection in your worship and reflection.

Immigration Sunday Reflection Office of Immigration Issues, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Prayer for the Separated Families at the U.S. Border  David Gambrel, Associate for Theology, Formation and Evangelism, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)]
 “Beatitudes”  Prayer by the Reverend Alison Harrington, Pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, Tucson, Arizona
 Christian Prayer of Solidarity (PDF)   Interfaith Immigration Coalition
 Pastor’s Toolkit (PDF): How do we talk about the children and families who are fleeing violence in Central America?   Interfaith Immigration Coalition
 “The Children Come”   A hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
 “Abraham Journeyed to a New Country”   A hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette
 “Jesus Entered Egypt”  A hymn by Adam M. L. Tice and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Glory to God, p. 154 
 “God of the Traveler”   A hymn for separated families by William McConnell



Take Action

You can take action to end the detention and deportation of asylum-seeking families by educating your church and community, contacting your elected officials, and/or directly supporting families. Remember, with all of these actions, whether it be local faith or community partners, invite others to join you in this witness.



Host a showing of Families Held Captive, a documentary created by the Office of the General Assembly about family detention and use our discussion leader guide (PDF) and attendee guide (PDF).
 Use this whiteboard video, created by the Office of the General Assembly, in your Sunday school class or at your next Minute for Mission.
 WRC/LIRS report—“Locking Up Family Values, Again.”
 Read Articles 31–33 of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees to understand why this practice is in violation of international agreements about the treatment of refugees.
 Learn more about the legal challenges to family detention in Flores v. Johnson.


Office of Public Witness grassroots toolkit: Use the resources in this toolkit to organize a response in support of our neighbors fleeing from Central America.

Contact your elected leaders:

The Administration made the decision to imprison asylum-seeking families, separate families, and subject them to an expedited hearing process. Congress determines the funding of immigration enforcement thereby assisting the administration in carrying out these policies. Congress can also reform immigration law and provide lawyers for migrants asking for asylum and children, both of whom go without a lawyer under current law. Call, write, and email the White House and contact your Representative and Senators.

Suggested script:

My name is _____ calling from _____. I am a [name of your faith community] and a constituent, and I disagree with the government’s treatment of asylum-seeking families. The asylum-seeking families being prosecuted by the Department of Homeland Security are seeking protection from violence, trafficking, and domestic violence. I oppose the detention of these families. I oppose the separation of these families. I oppose the criminalization of the movement of asylum-seekers. I want parents and children who are in removal hearings to receive due process—not expedited hearing schedules. I want them to have lawyers provided by the government when they cannot afford to hire counsel.

Accompaniment and Sanctuary:

Many families seeking asylum in the U.S. will find that the recent changes to our asylum system have shut them out. View our supporting immigrants page to see how other Presbyterians and people of faith are offering their presence to assist those who have not had proper access to due process. Help a family at risk of deportation complete a family care plan. Some congregations are choosing to offer Sanctuary in their places of worship to those facing deportation.


Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is working with the presbyteries in the states along the border to provide financial assistance to support humanitarian efforts. PDA’s primary concerns are (1) to help the parents find their children and to get the parents reunified, which often means also advocating for the parents’ release and (2) providing legal rights information and assistance to asylum seekers to be able to make their asylum claim. Initial grants have been sent to the Presbytery of the Pacific to support the work of Al Otro Lado and to the Presbytery of De Cristo to support The Florence Project. You can donate to PDA’s U.S. Refugee Emergencies Account DR000095 to help PDA expand their assistance.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) is a Texas nonprofit organization that began in 1986 in Madison Square Presbyterian Church to meet the needs of persons fleeing the civil wars and social upheaval in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. They continue to serve migrants today. Donate to reunite every child and post a bond for a parent to be released and reunified.
 The Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), a San Antonio based coalition of faith communities, organizations, and individuals, works collaboratively to welcome to our community refugees, asylum seekers, and at-risk immigrants, particularly women and children, and walk alongside them in their journey. You can more about how to volunteer with IWC to provide hospitality and transportation for asylum-seekers or you how you can donate to the backpack ministry that provides essential travel items for families as they move out of detention centers and travel to their final destinations.


Connect families to much-needed legal assistance:

Women and children who are released from family detention still have to appear at a deportation hearing. The proof and legal theories behind their claim to stay in the U.S. are complex and they are not guaranteed a lawyer at this hearing. Court records show that less than 30 percent of families have representation in court. Without an attorney, families are prevailing on their claim for protection in only 1.5 percent of cases. With an attorney the rate increases to 26.3 percent.

Families must find representation and you can help.

How to assist reuniting families separated in the immigration detention system:

Not all children separated by the “zero-tolerance” policy have been reunited. There is also worry that in certain situations, children may still be separated from their families. Organizations and individual allies are key in assisting families navigate the immigration detention system to ensure all those who can be safely reunited be returned to their family.

    • Freedom for Immigrants,a U.S.-based nonprofit, has created an online tool, REUNITE, to assist in locating adults or children who have been disappeared into the U.S. immigration detention system. This includes people who are being held in U.S. immigration detention, in criminal custody, or in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters. Parents, family members, attorneys, and advocates may fill out this form to locate loved ones or clients who have been separated from their families.


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