Head Shot 1Laura Brenneman is a visiting religion professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and Eastern Mennonite Seminary; she formerly taught at Bluffton University for seven years. Laura works at the intersection of biblical studies and peace studies. She is the New Testament editor of the Studies in Peace and Scripture series with the Institute of Mennonite Studies, a restorative justice practitioner, and chaplain in her local community. Laura enjoys biking, reading, and unwinding on the front porch with friends.

On July 1 and 2, 2013, I joined delegations to Florence, Ariz., and to Nogales, Mexico organized by the Mennonite Church USA as part of the biennial convention held in Phoenix, Ariz. These trips provided opportunity for experiential learning directly related to the convention’s theme, “Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope” or “Ciudadanos del Reino de Dios: Sanados por la Esperanza.”

After touring the Florence ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Detention Center, I am convinced that the detention (particularly for-profit detention) of immigrants is unnecessary and a violation of human rights and of the tenets of Christian faith.

The majority of my reflection here will focus on the trip to the ICE detention center. I also crossed into Mexico with one of the trips (offered Tuesday through Friday) organized by BorderLinks based in Tucson, AZ. These provided a variety of experiences: some people stayed in Tucson and witnessed mass sentencing of people in immigration removal trials; others (including myself) crossed into Mexico to meet with people affected by life on the border with the U.S. We were generously hosted by Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (Home of Hope and Peace [HEPAC]) in Mexico and Shalom Mennonite Church in Tucson. For further description and reflection on the BorderLinks trips, see Tim Huber’s article in the Mennonite World Review, “Border Walls Broaden Convention Experience.”

The trip to the Florence ICE Detention Center was offered on Monday only and limited to thirteen people per that center’s stipulation. My group arrived in Florence to tour the federal facility and, later, to meet with a nonprofit organization providing free legal services in immigration removal proceedings called the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (Florence Project).

The federal facility is one of several immigrant detention centers in Florence and nearby Eloy, most of which are not run directly by ICE. Several are built and run by a private for-profit company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA); in addition the Pinal County Jail located in Florence houses immigrant detainees, like many local jails throughout the country.

While there is a dizzying amount of information about the U.S. immigration system, what I wish to convey is its extraordinary scope. The Florence and Eloy facilities exist for the purpose of funneling masses of people out of the U.S. We learned that this is a regional hub where immigrant detainees from the western third of the U.S. are transported for trial and deportation. We learned that the facilities in Florence can house 1,300 people a day with a similar capacity in Eloy. In the U.S. last year, nearly 410,000 people were deported and government spending on immigration enforcement was $18 billion, more than all other federal law enforcement combined.

On any given day, there may be as many as 34,000 people in federal ICE (or ICE-contracted) facilities with wildly differing standards. The conditions range from clean dormitories with TVs and exercise time in the yard (like the facility we were gladly allowed to tour) to small dark cells with the only a small window slit for sun and no visitor contact (like the Pinal County Jail just down the road).

In addition, since the immigrant detainees are not U.S. citizens, they do not have right to legal representation or a speedy trial. In fact, most immigrant detainees are not able to afford a lawyer, so many represent themselves in a non-native language and try to navigate legal code that many lawyers find difficult. Immigrant detainees can wait for an indeterminate amount of time for trial without much—if any—contact with family or friends, all the while receiving pressure to sign their own deportation orders. We were told multiple times during our tour that the detainees hold the keys to their own detention: “all they need to do is sign their removal order and they can go home.” Cut off from contact and under daily pressure, it is little wonder to me why many—even those with credible fear of harm in their countries of origin—sign removal orders.

The work of the Florence Project is to provide legal services to as many immigrant detainees in Arizona as they can. Although there are not enough pro bono lawyers to represent all the people who do not have legal aid, but they provide workshops to help immigrants better represent themselves.

After my visit to Florence, I am convinced that this detention is unnecessary and violates human rights and Christian values. Along with Detention Watch Network, I think there are better ways to help people fairly and justly resolve their immigration status. In fact, President Obama has directed immigration enforcement to use prosecutorial discretion to spare people with non-criminal cases from detention. Since not having proper immigration documentation is not a U.S. criminal offense, much greater prosecutorial discretion can be exercised so that people are not separated from loved ones while their cases are in process.

If you and others you know are looking for ways to become involved, consider volunteering as a pro bono lawyer, an interpreter, or to offer other expert skill. You could donate to organizations that are doing excellent work providing legal representation to immigrant detainees, like the Florence Project. Educate yourself about immigration in the U.S. and about ICE detention centers. Speak to your members of Congress about implementing a just immigration policy; you can look to Mennonite Central Committee for astute policy analysis. If you know people in your community who are in detention centers, advocate for prosecutorial discretion. Finally, if you are near a detention center, consider visiting immigrant detainees. Some human contact, even through letters, can have a positive impact on isolated people dealing with incredible uncertainty. If you are moved to compassion, please do something.


Detention Watch Network 

Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project 

Mennonite Central Committee