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Refugee Protection bill aims to improve immigration and refugee law
July 05, 2011

Refugee Protection bill aims to improve immigration and refugee law
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and Church World Service, with funding from DHS, started a chaplaincy program in the eight federal facilities. Based on a non-proselytizing model ecumenical in scope and practice, the chaplains promote courage, hope and peace of mind for those in detention. (Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
In addition to pastoral counseling, chaplains facilitate religious activities, such as worship, prayer, Scripture services and fellowship within the traditions of each person’s faith. It is in the course of this work that the chaplains first come in contact with grief-stricken vulnerable migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees who seek spiritual support and succor as they journey through the complexities of immigration and refugee system while in a prison-like environment.
by Sean Kelly
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

(Washington, D.C.) July 5, 2011 — The newly introduced Refugee Protection Act of 2011 (H.R. 2185 and S. 1202) makes overdue changes to the Refugee Act of 1980 and U.S. immigration law. Jesuit Refugee Service/USA has a particular interest in the bill because of our experience offering pastoral care and religious services to immigration detainees. One aspect of the legislation, among the many necessary reforms, is the requirement that facilities detaining immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers provide full and equitable access to religious services to these detained individuals. 

Sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and in the House by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the bill mandates that these "immigration detainees," many of whom are deeply devout men and women who may have fled religious persecution in their home countries, have access to religious services, religious materials, and religious counseling consistent with their beliefs. 

All detention facilities must have a chaplain that manages religious activities, oversees pastoral counseling, and facilitates access to detainees by external clergy. Facilities must also accommodate the religious dietary requirements of detainees. 

Furthermore, the bill guarantees that non-governmental organizations like Jesuit Refugee Service/USA have reasonable access to detention facilities to observe conditions, offer teaching or training programs, and provide religious services. 

The bill proposes standards be applied to regularize a currently inconsistent and inequitable system in which only those individuals held in federally owned and operated detention centers have been guaranteed access to appropriate pastoral care.

Detention Reforms Needed to Guarantee Free Exercise of Religion

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) administers a nationwide system of detention facilities consisting of more than 250 detention centers. ICE directly operates some facilities, but most are either private or local jails that hold detainees for ICE through signed agreements. ICE’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations has developed religious services guidelines for detention facilities, but they have not been fully implemented or adequately enforced. 

In 2001, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acknowledged the importance of providing detainees at the eight  federal detention centers with spiritual counseling and support and the ability to exercise their religious rights. 

In an effort to meet the religious and spiritual care needs of detained non-citizens, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and Church World Service, with funding from DHS, started a chaplaincy program in the eight federal facilities. Based on a non-proselytizing model ecumenical in scope and practice, the chaplains promote courage, hope and peace of mind for those in detention. In addition to pastoral counseling, chaplains facilitate religious activities, such as worship, prayer, Scripture services and fellowship within the traditions of each person’s faith. It is in the course of this work that the chaplains first come in contact with grief-stricken vulnerable migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees who seek spiritual support and succor as they journey through the complexities of immigration and refugee system while in a prison-like environment. 

Our outreach to other detention facilities in the country — as we attempt to offer training and guidance to those new to immigration detention chaplaincy — has taught us that those detained at the more than 100 county and city facilities too often find themselves bereft of the pastoral services offered at the six federal facilities, despite administrative guidelines that ostensibly instruct these facilities to allow immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees access to appropriate religious services. 

While some prisons have full-time chaplains working hard to meet the spiritual needs of their detainees, others detention centers only have part-time or volunteer chaplains with limited availability. In some cases, religious services are coordinated by a sheriff’s deputy who may schedule volunteer led Bible study one night a week and a couple of Sunday Christian services celebrated by a local minister. Some jails have partnered with organizations that are more focused on Christian proselytizing than ministering to the diverse religious needs of detainees. In the case of one facility, despite the fact that the majority of detained immigrants are of Roman Catholic faith, the religious services coordinator, a sheriff's deputy, declared that showing Trinity broadcast network televangelists every Sunday for an hour was a sufficient guarantee of religious access.

There are many chaplains and volunteers that are dedicated to their work, but they may encounter challenges as they seek to provide religious care to minority religious groups in remote locations where immigrants are detained. Persistent struggles include: finding faith-specific religious materials for detainees such as paperback copies of the Koran, ensuring that kosher or hallal meals are available to Jewish and Muslim detainees, and recruiting a diverse group of faith leaders to volunteer to render religious services in the traditions represented among the detained. Unfortunately, the constraints of time and distance do not always allow visiting clergy to fulfill these requests.     

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Supports the Refugee Protection Act of 2011

JRS/USA encourages the Senate and House to pass the Refugee Protection Act of 2011 because it remedies the shortcomings in the provision of religious services and pastoral counseling to detainees. In addition, the bill enhances the United States government’s ability to satisfy its obligation to uphold the religious freedom and religious exercise of detainees in its custody — a responsibility enshrined in the First Amendment, Supreme Court rulings, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (explanation here). 

JRS/USA’s Detention Chaplaincy Program demonstrates that chaplains help detainees cope with separation from family, economic instability due to detention, and pending legal decisions. Chaplains strengthen religious beliefs and accompany detainees through an extremely difficult period in their lives. One JRS/USA Religious Services Coordinator said "they [detainees] know I understand their loneliness, their feeling of abandonment and share in their pain." She added "the men always tell me how they appreciate all the work and time the chaplain and volunteers give them. They are grateful for all we do for them." 

To contact your representatives about the Refugee Protection Act of 2011, please visit Write Your Representative or Email Your Senator and contact the appropriate elected official.






Press Contact Information
Mr Christian Fuchs
communications@jrsusa.org
202-462-0400 ext. 5946