Despots, detention and an immigration Epiphany

AP Christian worshipers visit the Church of Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead … Continued


Christian worshipers visit the Church of Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, ahead of Christmas, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Dec. 23, 2012.

Thousands of people pursued by despots – both big and small – flee each year to the only safe place they know – America.

There is no other route by which they’ll ever get home, if home still exists. They come in fear, but inspired by the light of freedom, only to find a system more reliant on King Herod’s philosophy than that of the Three Wise Men.

How so? The story is as old as the Epiphany. As the Wise Men head home from visiting the baby Jesus, Herod arrives on the scene, traveling the same route, following the same star that the Three Wise Men followed to Bethlehem.

We meet all of these characters – in Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth – at a crossroads. At a time of decision. Will they honor and carry the light of the world with them? Or will they snuff it out?

View Photo Gallery: From shopping trips to Santa Claus runs, people around the world get into the holiday spirit.

Unfortunately, Herod is not like the Wise Men, who are open to possibility and change. Like many in power, the king’s worldview is characterized by the need to classify and control. So at a time when the world needs it most, Herod, who experienced the same presence as the Wise Men, does not allow himself to be captivated by the light of the Christ child. In jealousy and fear, he literally attempts to snuff out the light of world, forcing the Holy Family into exile. They become refugees who fear return. The Wise Men, meanwhile, must find their way home under threat, by an alternate route.

One would imagine, centuries later, that we would not be able to draw parallels to the harrowing story of the Christ child’s infancy. But, sadly, we can.

On any given day, 34,000 people are detained in immigration detention cells across America. Many share a story as dramatic as the Wise Men’s and the Holy Family’s. To feel the full impact on the human beings who are locked up, you have to visit a detention center.

On a recent educational trip, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service hosted Lutheran leaders from across the country, visiting the Ramsey detention center in Minnesota. Ramsey is a small but critical piece of America’s immense immigrant detention industry. We asked leaders to journey with us to answer two important questions: How does this industry look, and what does it cost us?

Detainees are swept indiscriminately into Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s national network of 260 federal, private, state, and local jails, despite the fact that many are modern-day Holy Families and Wise Men– refugees, asylum seekers, or survivors of torture or human trafficking – fleeing for their lives.

There are alternatives. Programs exist that cost a fraction of the current daily price of $122 per detention bed. The LIRS report Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy maps out how the U.S. government can – and should – decrease its reliance on immigration detention by increasing its partnerships with non-profit organizations. Together, we can implement cost-effective and humane alternatives to detention programs while providing critically needed legal and social services. For less than detention’s current cost of $2 billion a year.

The stories of those in detention – many of them women separated from their children – continue to impress upon me the dire need for America to expand its alternatives to detention. And they remind me how far we’ve yet to go.

In this season of Epiphany, we are reminded that the gift of the Wise Men goes beyond their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gift of the Wise Men is an example of proclaiming light in the midst of darkness. Of making another way home. Of following stars and embracing possibility.

In this day and age, the season of Epiphany coincides with new hopes and possibilities, not least to end the suffering of people in detention, many of them fleeing today’s despots. The promise of comprehensive immigration reform is on the horizon, and within it, the chance that their suffering will be relieved by alternatives to detention. Let us all, beginning with our elected officials, come to agree on that wisdom and follow that star.

Stacy Martin is vice president for external relations and development at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

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  • llahsraMkcuF

    There are 34,000+ illegal immigrants in jail right now because they entered this country, well, illegally.

    There are currently over 2.5 million U.S. citizens that are incarcerated in local, state or federal prisions because, well, they broke the law…

    Having an Epiphany yet?

  • wigglwagon

    “Together, we can implement cost-effective and humane alternatives to detention programs while providing critically needed legal and social services.”

    Conveniently, Mr. Martin forgot to explain how these cost-effective and humane alternatives will work. He also forgot to mention the FACT that we already have 30 million more people than jobs.

  • hoopsgreen

    Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled Israel and lived in Egypt at immigrants for several years after Herod’s attempt to find him as a baby. The bible is full of stories (both old and new testament) about treating immigrants with kindness and acceptance. “When you ignore the least of your brothers, you ignore me.”

  • Delmarghb

    Here is an Epiphany for you. in a major PEW poll this year, in every major religion polled in the USA, the MAJORITy of members felt we had enough immigration and did not need to increase it. this was in stark contrast to the LEADERSHIP of the major religions, who failing to meet the needs of their parishioners, and facing empty seats in their churches and synagogues, feel the need to import new members, thus placing an economic,social and environmental burden on their communities just so they can benefit, all the while wearing a moral crown and wrapping themselves up in righteous immigration baloney.
    And for those in the religous crime organizations, like the lutheran and catholic refugee organizations,, who have selectively dumped tens of thousands of third world somalians and hmongs and other third world refugees into formerly stable,prosperous and happy homogenous white communities and then scampered offwith a grin leaving the communities to endure ethnic strife and economic burdensplaced on themselves which were unasked for, for generations,, I have a special christmas wish for you but will not say it on this christmas day.

  • Delmarghb

    The Bible does not mention immigrants, but strangers that sojourn with you.
    “Strangers that sojourn with you or live with you do not equate with illegal aliens. In fact, the corollary here, in each and every case, is that the children of Israel were ‘strangers’ in Egypt. That’s why they were to treat their own ‘strangers’ well, because they knew what it is like to be ‘strangers’ in a foreign land.

    “Clearly, then, what it means to be a ‘stranger’ is to be a foreigner. In the case of the children of Israel in Egypt, they were invited and, at first anyway, were honored guests. Later, they would be oppressed by a generation who ‘knew not Joseph.’ But they were certainly not trespassers. They were certainly not in Egypt illegally. They were certainly not breaking the laws of the land by being in Egypt. In fact, they were commanded not to offend their hosts in any way (Genesis 46:28-34).

    “So, we must conclude that ‘stranger’ does not equal ‘illegal alien’…

    “God loves the stranger, we’re told. You should, too. They should be treated with respect and dignity. They should not be mistreated. That’s the clear message of the Bible—treat law-abiding foreigners and aliens with love and compassion…

    “We shouldn’t be mean to those lawbreakers either. We shouldn’t mistreat them. We should even forgive them. But they have to leave.

    “They haven’t been invited. They are not our guests. They are not just strangers; they are trespassers. They are victimizing others through their presence—namely American citizens and foreigners who are trying to immigrate to the U.S. legally.”

  • Secular1

    Why do these church people think they should compare some contemporary problem to some inane story from that big fat book of poorly written book of fairy tales. First of all renders ahistorical narration of Herod.

  • JimBfromNC

    I wish I was astonished by this sotr of parsing of a particular translation of the bible to look for legalistic justification for bigotry. The second most frequent commandment (after the worship of one God) in the Pentatuch is the commandment to welcome the stranger, the sojourner, and yes, the immigrant. In the Good News of the New Testiment, the greatest commandment is to love the stranger as oneself. The only test of that love is how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

    You may walk by as you please, but I am commanded to cross the road to help my set-upon brothers and sisters. If that marks me a member of despised tribe, so be it. It also marks me as one who loves my neighbor.

    Finally, if you are going to quote the bible and World Net Daily in the same post, you should probably label your sources. Your intellectual sloppiness may be at the root of your theological confusion.

    May you recognize the peace and love so unreasonably available to all of us through Grace.