In Texas, UUs assist immigrant families and offer sanctuary

In Texas, UUs assist immigrant families and offer sanctuary

Austin church is housing a Guatemalan activist; in Colorado, immigrant leaves church after nine-month sanctuary.

Elaine McArdle
Carla DeMore, a UU College of Social Justice volunteer.

Carla DeMore, a UU College of Social Justice volunteer, performs with puppets for Central American children just released from one of the immigrant family detention centers in South Texas. (© Jeff Pearcy/UUSC)

© Jeff Pearcy/UUSC


Immigrants’ rights advocates are celebrating a major victory. On July 24, a federal judge issued a scathing ruling against the federal government’s policy of holding undocumented children in family detention centers and ordered the release of mothers and children.

Judge Dolly M. Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that two privately operated detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, fail to meet minimum legal requirements of a 1997 court settlement regarding undocumented children. That settlement stipulated that children cannot be housed in prison-like settings or in places unlicensed to care for children. Gee ruled that the hundreds of families in the Texas detention centers, almost all of whom are escaping gang and other violence in Central America, should be released within 90 days unless the government can show why that shouldn’t happen.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has asked the court to reconsider its order because of concerns it could result in an increase in undocumented adults trying to enter the country with children, a government spokesperson told UU World on August 7. DHS is moving toward using family facilities as short-term processing centers rather than detention centers, she said, and has proposed to the court that it will release most families with credible asylum claims within 20 days. She said that in May and June, the government made “significant policy changes that have transformed the way we are treating these families.”

Just days before the court ruling, Arturo Hernandez Garcia—who had been taken into sanctuary at First Unitarian Society in Denver last September to avoid deportation—was informed by the central office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that he was not an enforcement priority. As a result, on June 21, nine months to the day after Hernandez Garcia moved into the basement of the Unitarian church, he left the building and was reunited with his wife and two children.

The Rev. Mike Morran, First Unitarian Society’s senior minister, said the Denver congregation is open to taking another undocumented person into sanctuary as part of its commitment to immigration justice.

Earlier in June, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, took an LGBT activist from Guatemala, Sulma Franco, into sanctuary. Franco fears for her life if she is forced to return home because other LGBT activists have been disappeared in Guatemala, said the Rev. Chris Jimmerson.

A group of clergy and other supporters will be accompanying Franco to court on August 18 when her attorneys will seek to have her deportation order lifted. If her request isn’t granted, ICE could chose to take her into custody. Although it’s unlikely that would happen, Jimmerson said, he and other clergy will be there escorting Franco to try and prevent her from being detained.

UUs have a long history of supporting LGBT rights, so taking Franco into sanctuary was a good fit and the congregation has been overwhelmingly supportive of her, Jimmerson said. Members have donated furniture and other items to convert the former classroom space into living quarters. “I think the congregation is the most engaged I’ve ever seen them,” said Jimmerson, who said Franco is seeking political asylum in immigration court.

UUs from Texas, California, and elsewhere have supported families in the detention centers and women in another detention center through regular visits and other efforts. They’ve been working with immigrants’ rights advocates to close the detention centers. Meanwhile, delegates to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in June voted overwhelmingly for an Action of Immediate Witness calling for the closure of family detention centers.

For months now, members of First UU Church of San Antonio, Texas, have worked with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES Texas to help families released from the detention centers. Many need a place to stay for the night before they travel to join family members elsewhere in the U.S. They need supplies for their children, including food and diapers, for the trip. Members of the coalition, including several dozen UUs, have been meeting women at the local bus station in San Antonio to guide them to a local shelter run by the IWC and provide them with items they need.

In June the UU College of Social Justice organized two groups of UU volunteers from around the country to work with RAICES Texas to assist families in detention. The volunteers—lawyers and people who are fluent in Spanish—assisted women with petitions for legal asylum. They also met women and children as they were being released from detention to offer shelter, food, and other help.

In the wake of the court decision, UUs and their interfaith and social justice partners are gearing up to assist a flood of families as they are released from the detention centers. Among other things, they want to dissuade ICE from forcing released women to wear ankle bracelets when there are less onerous systems for monitoring their whereabouts. The ankle bracelet system is operated by subsidiaries of the for-profit prison companies that run the Dilley and Karney detention centers, said Christina Mansfield, co-founder and co-executive director of CIVIC, a national coalition of groups working to end immigration detention.

“We don’t want to see replacement of family detention with another system driven by profit,” said Mansfield, who said UUs have been among the strongest supporters of CIVIC’s visitation programs and other efforts. “We want to see true community alternatives to detention.”

CIVIC will host a breakout session on post-release support for immigration detainees at a retreat August 31–September 2 in Malibu, California, according to Jan Meslin, CIVIC’s social change development director. Meslin, a member of Tapestry, a UU congregation in Mission Viejo, California, said CIVIC includes about 200 UU members from around the country. CIVIC’s Post-Release Accompaniment Project helps asylum seekers with a variety of services, she added.

The UU Service Committee (UUSC), which has advocated for the U.S. government to shut down the detention centers and comply with the 1997 settlement in Flores v. Johnson, is circulating a petition urging the Obama administration to comply with the court ruling and to end the detention centers permanently.

Update August 19, 2015

On Tuesday, August 18, accompanied to court by the Rev. Chris Jimmerson and other UUs and supporters, Franco was granted an order of supervision by immigration officials. The order allows her to stay in the country pending resolution of her application for asylum. Franco was thus able to leave the sanctuary that First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin was providing her to keep her from being deported. “It is so exciting. Sulma did not get deported, mostly because of the sanctuary and support she got from Austin UUs,” said Meslin.