Stop jailing so many immigrants

Pennsylvania should adopt humane alternatives to detention

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A recent visit to an immigration court opened my eyes to the issues faced by people who are attempting to do what my ancestors did: become an American.

Seeing what these people experience in court also impressed upon me the urgent need for us, as Pennsylvanians and Americans, to create alternatives to the inhumane treatment of migrants.

The first issue that struck me while visiting Minnesota's Bloomington immigration court was the suffering of people detained in a dysfunctional system. Many who appear before immigration judges across our country are brought from detention centers where, on any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement imprisons 34,000 people.

These people are swept indiscriminately into ICE's national network of 260 federal, private, state and local jails -- despite the fact that many are refugees, asylum seekers or survivors of torture or human trafficking. In Pennsylvania alone, an average of 1,053 people languish in these detention cells every day. Besides the cruelty inherent in this system, it costs U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion per year -- for Pennsylvanians, nearly $47 million.

The second issue that struck me was the crippling backlog of cases. People coming before the judge were trying to avoid being removed from this country. They had come to the United States for a variety of reasons and through a variety of avenues, but they shared the desire for legitimate documentation to remain. I saw a judge being gracious and patient. But the case backlog meant that it took months for immigrants to get a hearing.

As part of my trip to the court, which took place under the aegis of a national Lutheran summit on immigration, I learned that from fiscal year 1996 to 2010, the number of cases in U.S. immigration courts increased by 59 percent while the number of immigration judges increased only 29 percent, resulting in a backlog of 314,147 cases by June of this year.

Because migrants are forced to wait an average of 526 days for their cases to be completed, they live in limbo for a year or two. They increasingly experience the court system through video teleconferences, a cost-saving measure that worries Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which arranged our courtroom visit. What would we make of another country forcing people to witness their legal process on a screen -- and in the case of immigration hearings, without a right to counsel?

One unfortunate case I witnessed involved legal counsel, but the person appeared ill-prepared and uninformed. The judge had given instructions for completing the process, but this legal professional hadn't complied. The result seemed sure to result in the migrant's forced removal from the United States.

The overall message I took away from visiting the court was the urgent need for our country to implement alternatives to detaining vulnerable migrants. Such alternatives are available, more humane and would save taxpayers money.

My companions in the courtroom visit, all Lutheran pastors and lay leaders, learned that alternative programs cost a fraction of the daily price of $122 per detention bed. The Lutheran refugee service report, "Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy," maps out how the U.S. government could decrease its reliance on immigration detention by increasing its partnerships with nonprofit organizations. The report documents how these organizations could help implement cost-effective and humane alternatives while providing critically needed legal and social services.

Today, I look with new eyes on the obligations I'm called upon to shoulder. Creating alternatives to the inhumane treatment of migrants is a priority. Improving our broken immigration system needs to be part of comprehensive federal reforms -- reforms that should be supported here in Pennsylvania. I am called to this cause by my values as an American and a Lutheran, and I ask that everyone call upon our elected representatives to begin working on such reforms immediately.


Rev. Paul L. Lubold serves as part-time pastor of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in North Park. He also is advocacy developer for the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania (


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