Local organizations speak out against locking infants in detention centers

Beginning in late August and continuing into October, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. and partner organizations used that creative theme to send the Department of Homeland Security and its director Jeh Johnson a pointed message: that it’s wrong to lock up nonviolent immigrants whose only crime is seeking a better life.

For more than two decades, CLINIC has helped immigrant detainees navigate the complex immigration system. From legal orientations to leading national advocacy efforts, we have made assisting immigrants in detention centers a priority. Most recently, as a partner in the CARA Pro Bono Family Detention Project, CLINIC volunteers have been providing legal services to mothers and children being held in detention centers, often deprived of necessities like sufficient health care.

It was not long before volunteers noticed an increase in the number of mothers who were pregnant or had very young children. Women who should have been praised for finding the courage to leave dangerous situations are instead forced to raise their children under traumatic circumstances, often indefinitely. As a faith organization, CLINIC adheres to its duty to speak up for those who are not in the position to advocate for themselves, which is what led us to join our community partners in the launch of Diapers in Detention.

In addition to sending cards by mail and email to Johnson in Washington, partner organizations held symbolic baby showers at local Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices to raise awareness about the rising number of mothers, infants and young children locked in “residential centers.”

Supporters gathered in 10 cities, armed with posters reading slogans such as: “Baby jail is child abuse,” “Let my children go,” and “Blankies don’t warm JAIL CELLS.” Some groups included as many as 75 protestors. These men and woman represented every corner of America, from elderly, retired nuns to high-spirited millennials. Several formerly detained immigrants and family members of current detainees tearfully told their stories into megaphones. Other speakers included prominent immigration attorneys and advocates.

“Imagine spending a month or so in an arduous search for safety in a new country as an infant or small child, and then being held in a situation of great stress and uncertainty with your mother,” said Sisters of Mercy member Sister Kathleen Erickson during the baby shower protest in Omaha, Nebraska, as reported by Nebraska Appleseed. “The name for these centers gives the appearance that they are a haven for the families. In reality, the families are not free. Fences, constant supervision and restrictions keep these families from leaving.”

The Rivard Report said Sister Sharon Altendorf, Presentation Sister for Communities Organized for Public Service and the Metro Alliance told the crowd in San Antonio, Texas, “We need to see these people not as threats, but as refugees seeking safety.”

Also during the San Antonio shower, according to the Rivard Report, Jonathan Ryan, executive director of RAICES, spoke to the legacy this type of inhumane detention leaves.

“It’s even more meaningful for me today to see that we are joined by young people who are here to share their presence and lend their voice to this movement,” said Ryan. “I don’t want you to grow up in a country where you think that it’s OK for adults to put children in prison. I apologize to you.”

Throughout the Diapers and Detention campaign, social media played a critical role. Graphics flooded Facebook and Twitter timelines proclaiming “babies should be held, but not in detention,” and “Orange is the new baby blue.” Other graphics appealed to people of faith and values-led individuals by quoting Mathew 8:5, “whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”

Organizations and individuals posted pictures of hundreds of cards sent to Johnson’s office. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee reported their organization alone facilitated 1,139 emails. Specifically on Twitter, the campaign’s handle, #diapersindetention, is estimated to have reached more than 66,400 unique Twitter users and in some form entered the Twitter timelines of more than 171,200 additional users.

Another 200 advocates used the Diapers in Detention Facebook Group to get organized. They shared event times and locations, as well as ideas on how to engage the local media and community. Participants repeatedly spoke to how their daily lives were affected by family detention. They put forth ideas to make their local governments know this is not what their communities need.

CLINIC is extremely proud of the Diapers and Detention campaign. But this is only the beginning. The DHS Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers recently released recommendations in which it unanimously concluded that "detention is generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families." CLINIC has commended many of their recommendations. To some, the report shows DHS could be ready to listen and make effective change.

As advocates and community leaders, CLINIC urges you to continue to drive this issue forward. Let both local and national government leaders know we want solutions that end family detention; because as Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, of Seattle, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said, we cannot give up on “our brothers and sisters just because they have an irregular immigration status. No matter how they got here, we cannot lose sight of their humanity.” 


Director of Capacity Building Jeff Chenoweth addresses a gathering