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Preserving Religious Freedom and Human Dignity in Immigrant Detention
October 09, 2009

Preserving Religious Freedom and Human Dignity in Immigrant Detention
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Secretary John Morton announced several changes designed to improve conditions and oversight for undocumented migrants who are detained in the federal detention system yesterday. The changes are based on the Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations report simultaneously released. The report was written by Dr. Dora Schriro, most recently the Director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning. 

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (JRS/USA) recognizes that, in releasing this report, DHS has taken an important step forward toward reforming an overused, unaccountable and rapidly expanding immigration detention system.

“I am particularly gratified to note the importance that Schriro’s report places on the need for the equitable and adequate provision of religious services at all detention facilities,” said Shaina Aber, Associate Advocacy Director of JRS/USA. 

JRS/USA has worked tirelessly with other members of the interfaith community to highlight gaps in religious access and pastoral care in immigration detention facilities, particularly at local county jails and privately run contract detention facilities that house the vast majority of immigration detainees.

DHS recognizes the value of providing adequate religious services to detainees. For the past five years, DHS has contracted with JRS/USA and Church World Service to provide chaplaincy programs at federally owned and administered Service Processing Centers.

Through this work, JRS/USA has been in a position to observe how access to spiritual support offered in the detainee’s own faith tradition provides great solace. The very presence of quality pastoral care brings a calming influence to the detention environment, benefiting detainees and contributing to the good order of the facility.

Dr. Schriro’s report, which prominently features the need for better guarantees of religious access at all facilities that hold immigrants in detention, seeks to highlight gaps in the treatment of detainees at the local and county jails and private detention facilities that JRS/USA has noted with growing concern over the years. 

At some state facilities holding ICE detainees, there have been times administrators have failed to make appropriate provisions for Lent, Ramadan, and Yom Kippur. At certain facilities Muslim women and Sikh men have been wrongly denied the use of religious headwear. Some facilities have barred the religious use of wine by facility chaplains, thereby denying the celebration of the Eucharist (“the Mass”), which is the central sacrament of worship for Roman Catholics.

JRS/USA has noted that religious services at a number of the local and contract facilities are coordinated by staff members in charge of recreation, or by an untrained outside volunteer. These individuals sometimes lack the ties to religious communities and the training necessary to recruit appropriate volunteer clergy. 

In unfortunate cases, some volunteers have misunderstood their role and have engaged in proselytizing detainees in direct violation of the spirit behind the Religious Practices Standard. At other facilities, detainees of minority faiths have little access to religious personnel from their own faith communities. 

This is unacceptable, and we welcome Dr. Schriro’s recognition that ICE must hold facilities that fail to meet the pastoral needs of detainees accountable.

JRS/USA continues to believe that religious access standards for detained immigrants should guarantee that:
  1. A full-time accredited chaplain or designated religious professional is present at each facility housing immigration detainees who will be responsible for scheduling and directing the facility’s religious activities. This person must have the necessary training to connect detainees with a broad range of religious services along a non-proselytizing model.

  2. Authorized religious workers are ensured broad access to immigration detainees, to provide pastoral care to those who request it, both through group programs and individual counseling. Detainees of a religious faith different from that of the Chaplain will, if they prefer, have access to such care from external clergy and religious service providers.

  3. Facilities devote sufficient resources to purchasing and providing religious literature such as Bibles, Torahs, and Korans.

  4. Detainees of diverse religious beliefs will be provided reasonable and equitable opportunities to participate in the practices of their respective faiths. Regardless of a detainee’s faith tradition, he or she has equitable and consistent access to pastoral care.
 “The other concern I have is the apparent unwillingness of the administration to support codification of detention standards,” said Aber. 

JRS/USA does agree with the Administration that the current detention standards should be re-drafted to adopt a civil model of detention, but legislation or binding administrative regulations are still necessary. 

“Without making detention standards into enforceable and binding laws, subsequent administrations may change the entire system back to the penal model. We want to make sure that the basic human rights and human dignity of detainees are assured no matter who is in the White House. Codification of enforceable detention standards is of paramount importance,” Aber said. 

“We look forward to working with the Administration to offer our suggestions and expertise on ways to sufficiently meet the needs and preserve the human dignity of people in immigration proceedings,” said Aber.

Press Contact Information
Mr Christian Fuchs
202-462-0400 ext. 5946