In Blog: Factually Speaking

Melissa Stek

The anti-immigrant proposals and policies coming out of the Trump administration are an attack on our nation’s collective values. These policies rip families apart, encourage racial profiling, and undermine due process.

We must fight against these dangerous moves from the administration in order to help ensure that all people who live in the U.S. have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Harmful, unsafe immigrant camps, family separation, dangerous changes to the public charge rule and the shameful HUD proposal to evict families from housing based on immigrant status are all designed to instill fear and spread anti-immigrant sentiment. That’s why it’s so important that we understand the truth about our nation’s approach to immigration.

Guest blogger Melissa Stek spent time in El Paso, Texas this spring, where she visited a detention center that houses migrants. Her firsthand view reveals what we already knew: that the United States is treating asylum seekers abominably.

We have all read the news stories about people in “migrant caravans” walking hundreds of miles from the Northern Triangle of Central America to the U.S. southern border. Who are the people in these “caravans,” and why are they coming to the U.S.?

Like refugees before them, these men, women, and children are fleeing unspeakable violence and persecution that their own countries have struggled to control. They arrive at our border and ask for protection (“asylum”), which they have a legal right to do, and our country has an international obligation to recognize this right.

Instead, the Trump administration has taken to fear-mongering, restricting asylum, and finding other ways to shut migrants out, whether by building physical walls or a virtual “wall” of more border agents, fewer pathways to legal immigration, more deportations, and more prisons to detain migrants.

We are putting immigrants in prisons while they go through the asylum process. We are treating refugees like criminals, like threats to society. That includes entire families and children.

As the latest death of a child and the horrific conditions and overcrowding in immigrant jail makes clear, the prison approach is harmful, punitive, unnecessary, and failing.

In April, I visited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in El Paso, Texas along with other representatives from Reformed churches across the globe. With this delegation, I had the opportunity to see directly how our nation is “housing” immigrants and asylum-seekers.

These jails are anything but the “safe haven” asylum-seekers hope for when they flee their homes and try to start a new life in the U.S. This was made all the more real to me as I walked through a facility myself.

I will never forget the instructions of the facility’s chaplain, who took us on the tour. “Do not talk to the ‘residents,’” he said, “it could impact their immigration cases.”

He led us into the women’s living quarters, where dozens of women had been ordered to sit on their bunks while we toured the facility. As we walked into their space, they covered themselves with their blankets to save a shred of their own dignity.

In another room, women were shackled at their ankles, waists, and wrists, waiting to be loaded onto deportation buses. Their faces were variously terrified, defeated, and empty. It grieved me to not be able to interact with them, while the chaplain talked cheerfully about the board games and activities available to them.

While being toured through the small library, I made eye contact with a gentleman seated at a computer, who shook his head at me as the chaplain talked about compassion. When our eyes met again, he mouthed the word, “help,” to me. All I could do was hold my hands to my heart and nod, thinking, “I see you. I hear you. I will not leave this place and do nothing, I promise.”

In the cafeteria, one man began speaking to us even though he was not supposed to. “They’re lying to you,” he said. “I’m not a criminal and I’ve been waiting in here for my court date for five months. Please do something!” Though he had not gotten physical with our group, the staff promptly and aggressively restrained him while we were quickly escorted out of the cafeteria.

Detention is not the answer, but our government chooses it intentionally. In the name of “deterrence,” it seems that the goal is to break the spirits of already traumatized people to the point that they will abandon their cases and go back to the violence they fled. When we label and treat asylum-seekers as criminals, we fool ourselves into believing that we are justified in treating them as less than human.

Shame on us.

When the man in the cafeteria spoke out, a staff member looked witheringly at him and shook his head. “Sorry about that,” he said to me. “They think you can do something about their cases.”

“Actually, I can,” I responded. “I can advocate and I can vote.”


Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in Medium.


Melissa Stek is a Justice Mobilization Specialist for the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s Office of Social Justice. She engages churches and individuals on immigration issues through education, worship and advocacy. Prior to her work with the OSJ, Melissa was a legislative assistant to a member of congress in Washington, DC, primarily focused on immigration policy. With a background in social work and community organizing, Melissa has used the breadth of her experiences to inform her current advocacy work on immigration and faith-based organizing.

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