For lawyers offering free legal information at large immigration detention centers in remote parts of Texas, the task is difficult enough: coaching hundreds of detainees on how to represent themselves at assembly-line deportation hearings. But the lawyers soon discover a more daunting problem: many detainees are too mentally ill or mentally disabled to understand anything.
The detainees, mostly apprehended in New York and other Northeastern cities, some right from mental hospitals, have often been moved to Texas without medication or medical records, far from relatives and mental health workers who know their histories. Their mental incompetence is routinely ignored by immigration judges and deportation officers, who are under pressure to handle rising caseloads and meet government quotas.
For people who have never dealt with mental illness, it’s probably hard to fathom just how wrong this is. Denying severely mentally ill people their medication breaks their tenuous grasp on stability and sanity and plunges them into worlds of unrelenting horror. Shipping these patients to jails halfway across the continent from their doctors and families takes them away from their only links to safety. Kicking them out of the country to fend for themselves puts their lives at serious risk. This is punishment at its cruelest and most unusual.
When I think of the least, the last and the lost, the first people who come to mind are the severely mentally ill. Taking away their lifelines and kicking them out of the country is a sin, plain and simple. Comprehensive immigration might take a while, but we can stop these deportations now.
The March For America was an inspiring experience. Although FPL and many partners had been preparing for the event for months, the sheer magnitude of it didn’t hit home until I actually stood among the hundreds of thousands of people watching powerful speakers call on Congress and the White House to keep their promises on immigration reform.
But the essence of what we were rallying for didn’t become clear until midway through the afternoon, when a volunteer carried a wailing five-year-old boy into the press area. Amid this massive crowd, he had lost his parents. He was terrified, inconsolable, sobbing uncontrollably. The young volunteer swayed gently as she held him. We all watched closely, thinking about how we could help. I gave him an apple cinnamon cereal bar. Another volunteer went to the main stage and asked a speaker to make an announcement. Armed SWAT officers spoke into their radios, no doubt alerting others to look for the boy’s family.
Then It hit me all of a sudden- the terror, the separation – this is what our immigration system inflicts on immigrant families every day. Except in communities across the country, when little children are separated from their parents, no announcements are made. No army of volunteers fans out to find them. The men with guns come to pull the family apart, instead of bringing them back together.
I wish every intransigent politician could see that five-year-old boy’s face. If they understood the suffering that inaction on immigration enables, they would take it up immediately. Practical solutions are on the table, and the moral imperative is clear.
This weekend, tens of thousands of Americans will converge on Washington, DC, for a historic March For America: Change Takes Courage and Faith, a unified demonstration in support of immigration reform from faith groups across the ideological spectrum as well civil rights, immigrant, family and labor groups. Many will gather before the March for an interfaith service, and on Monday faith leaders will meet with high-level White House officials and Members of Congress to advocate for reform of our broken, unjust immigration system that separates families and robs human beings of the dignity each child of God deserves.
And while the demonstrate that the faith community is mobilized like never before on this issue at the national level, there’s also a lot going on at the local level. In addition to the scores of prayer vigils and public events across the country over the past few months, religious leaders have met directly with key Members of Congress. A must-read column in Monday’s Houston Chronicle recounts a recent meeting between prominent clergy and Senator Cornyn:
When U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and his aides walked into Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s conference room at the Catholic Chancery one afternoon three weeks ago to talk about immigration reform, they were greeted by the archbishop, Lutheran Bishop Michael Rinehart and a dozen rabbis and clergy members from a variety of denominations.
They were also greeted by about 6,000 postcards piled in stacks on the large conference table around which the group would sit.
The men of the cloth wanted to talk to him about what they see as the biblical and moral imperative of immigration reform. But they also wanted to send a practical political message.
At a time when anger is the currency of the political realm, much of it aimed at illegal immigrants, the religious leaders were saying to Cornyn that they will have his back if he risks becoming a target of that anger by helping craft and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
In addition to demonstrating the faith community’s commitment to immigration reform, these leaders showed the role they can play in establishing a civil dialogue. The last time immigration reform came up, the vitriol was nauseating. Republican and Democratic leaders alike surely know that supporting immigration reform in 2010 will open them up to vicious attacks from anti-immigrant groups. If faith leaders speak out publicly to condemn hateful rhetoric, not only will our public dialogue better reflect our values, it’ll create a safer political environment for elected officials who want to support reform but are wary of the backlash.
As the faith community’s nationwide push for comprehensive immigration reform gains steam, religious leaders are working to set a civil tone in the debate. Illustrating the need for this, Campus Progress reported that the anti-immigrant group Numbers USA held a strategy conference call with leaders of Tea Party organizations to plot ways to thwart the March 21st March For America, which included some rather troubling rhetoric:
CALLER 1: I would like to speak out on something. I feel the new welfare queen in America today is women coming from Mexico with a bunch of babies. So I feel they’re all coming over here and having all these babies, they are the new welfare queen in America….
New people in America today with a lot of babies, ’cause they coming from Mexico having a bunch of babies. And our tax dollars is taking care of them babies, ’cause the mothers are illegal. So to me, we need to speak out about letting them know they’re the new welfare queens in America.
CALLER 2: That was well said brother!
MACDONALD [moderator, from Numbers USA]: We will make a note of that. Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
CALLER 3: One piece of information would be, they aren’t babies, they’re dependents. Don’t use babies. It’s emotional to them. They have dependents. We have babies. [Emphasis added.]
This wasn’t just a couple of cranks blowing off steam. This was a strategy session by national anti-immigration organizers discussing how to effectively deceive the public and dehumanize immigrants. Spreading inflammatory misinformation and calling an immigrant’s children less fully human than a citizen’s is beyond distasteful – it is immoral. Hopefully immigration reform opponents don’t bring it into the public square.
As recentmediacoverage has shown, the faith community is mobilizing nationwide to urge leaders in Washington to act now to repair our broken immigration system. Just yesterday, almost 100 faith leaders marched ten miles from Ellis Island to a immigrant detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey to call attention to the plight of detainees and call for reform. And in Orlando, prominent clergy gathered to call for a more humane system that keeps families together, gaining tv news coverage that carried their message loud and clear. Have a look:
Over the coming days and weeks, more and more faith leaders across the country will continue lifting up the issue of immigration reform as an urgent moral and political priority. Hopefully our political leaders will hear them, and act to repair a system that tears families apart and keeps millions of people in the shadows.