Family Separation and Reunification

So much has happened over the last month with the president’s new Zero Tolerance immigration policy of separating children from their families at the border that it can be hard to keep up. Here’s a refresher of what’s happened and what’s currently happening under this policy, and what the ELCA and advocacy partners are doing in response.

The policy: The Department of Justice announced in April that every adult who enters the country without immigration authorization would be criminally prosecuted, regardless of the circumstances. This includes refugees fleeing their home countries due to violence or other reasons, even though refugees are required under US law to present themselves at a point of entry—in other words, people entering the United States to claim asylum are not breaking the law.  Under the previous policy, people caught crossing the border or those claiming asylum would be held in immigrant detention pending the outcome of their immigration proceeding. Under the new policy, they are instead referred to criminal prosecution to determine whether they will serve prison time for crossing the border. Federal law classifies crossing the border without approval by an immigration official as a misdemeanor, not a felony; it is the criminal equivalent to trespassing on national forest land.

Family separation: United States law does not allow children to be jailed, so the policy of automatically prosecuting parents crossing the border has resulted in children being taken from their parents and held in separate detention facilities while their parents are sent to federal prison. Children who are separated from their parents are deemed “unaccompanied minors” and referred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for locating any family members or friends in the US who can take custody of the child. As a result of the change in policy, at least 2,700 children were separated from their families between May and June and held in detention centers. They range in ages from less than a year old to 17 years old.

Family reunification: in late June a federal judge ordered the administration to reunify all children who were taken from their families by July 26th. However, it’s unlikely that this deadline will be met since the government has already failed to meet a similar deadline for reuniting separated families with children under five years old. At any rate, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will continue reunifying and releasing the rest of the families and children to 4 non-profit organizations in Texas and Arizona. So far 71 children have families that the government cannot identify.

Lutheran advocacy and action: The ELCA’s AMMPARO program is a holistic strategy focused on using the church’s connections within Central America, Mexico and the U.S. to uphold and guarantee the protection and safety of children in the region. AMMPARO stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO). In Spanish, the word “amparo” with one “m” means shelter or protection. The program is based on three guiding principles: Accompaniment, Awareness Building and Advocacy.

The 4 organizations receiving reunified families are partners with AMMPARO and will be providing shelter and hospitality to reunited families. Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey (Cristo Rey Lutheran Church) of El Paso, TX, and many other area churches are working with Annunciation House, one of the hospitality centers in El Paso. Cristo Rey leaders report to the AMPARRO network that Annunciation House will be receiving 400-500 reunified families, in addition to the family members released from ICE for whom they are already providing hospitality. This means hosting close to one thousand people per week!

What can I do? Here are some ways you can take action:

  • Join a Network that accompanies these children and families. The ELCA has the AMMPARO strategy in which congregations can form part of a welcoming congregations network around the country. These congregations commit to accompany children in their community, pray and advocate for migrant children and families. Lutherans can also learn more about these issues from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
  • Organize to advocate: Whether in the budget process or through stand-alone bills, Congress can provide much-needed oversight and regulation to policies that are hurting children and families. They must hear your voice. Join the ELCA’s Action Network and check ELCA Advocacy’s Facebook page and Twitter to stay current on these policies. Follow Lutheran Advocacy-MN on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for our action alerts.
  • Contact your representatives! Contact Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith and your congressional representatives to let them know you value keeping families together, regardless of circumstance. Ask them to work for solutions to the root causes of violence that are causing parents and children to need to escape, especially from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Ask them to request that the administration to stop detaining families, and share scriptures that influence your values.
  • Contribute: the four agencies that will be providing shelter and safety to reunited families in the coming weeks urgently need support to provide food, showers and place to sleep for reunited families. Follow these links to donate to Annunciation House and Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey (Cristo Rey Lutheran Church) in El Paso, TX, and to Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, NM, which hosts immigrant families released by ICE. *Include in the memo line “Refugee Assistance”*
  • Pray: Pray for the families affected, the four agencies providing safety for reunified families in the next couple of weeks, for our political leaders and for each of us to find the right words in expressing to our leaders our concerns and our commitment to the justice God calls us to.