22 women are conducting a hunger strike in Leesport, Berks County. They are Los Madres Berks. They are being detained with their children by immigration and customs enforcement---the federal government---along with about 43 other women and children. Many of them have been detained for over 200 days, some for as long as a year. Their crimes? They fled violent, impoverished Central American countries with their children and traveled thousands of miles to seek asylum and assistance in the U.S. They have experienced trauma, abuse, and mistreatment. They have not experienced protection or merciful justice. They were arrested at our southern border and brought to the Berks Family Detention Center, one of three family detention centers in the U.S. They are in federal custody in a facility run by Berks county. They are appealing a court order that blocked their application for asylum, because the process of determining “credible fear” was improperly conducted. There living conditions are poor. Children cannot attend schools. Pennsylvania revoked the facility’s human services license in February because of the conditions under which the children we living. The county is appealing. In the meantime, nothing gets better for these women and children. Family detention was started in 2014 as a result of an influx of unaccompanied minors into the U.S. from central America. Specifically, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
On September 6th, 2016, Christina Smoker, Michael Kelly and I attended an interfaith prayer vigil on the grounds of the detention center. We joined about 250 others in song, prayer, and protest. We were joined by Lutheran Immigration and refugee services staff and other Lutherans concerned for immigrants and asylum seekers. Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, Lutherans, other religious groups, and human rights advocates gathered in unity and solidarity with the madres Berks and their children. We stood on one side of a fence, on one side of a street. The women and children stood together opposite us, about 200 yards away. We were divided by space, but our hearts and voices were united in a common hope. They stood hand in hand and sang in Spanish as we stood together, with candles lit, and sang in English. They seek freedom, asylum, compassion, mercy, and just treatment. They fled dreadful lives in their home countries. They came here. They were forced to flee because of gang violence and economic poverty. They want what all mothers want for their children. They want their children to live, to get educations, and to thrive in safety with opportunity.
The biblical witness calls the people of God to a stance of welcome and hospitality toward the foreigner, the stranger, and the resident refugee. Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 says, "When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Matthew 25.
As Lutheran Christians, we are called to practice solidarity with and public advocacy for vulnerable peoples. We are called to demonstrate hospitality and mercy for the least among us. We are called to serve as Christ served us. Family detention is unjust and unmerciful. We must call on our government to do better for the sake of these mothers and their children.
To learn more about family detention and a Lutheran response please go to: http://lirs.org/immigrationdetention/