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This week a friend from church returned from a trip to Dilley, Texas, a town of 4,000 people about 90 miles north of the Mexican-American border on the Rio Grande river. I had never heard of Dilley, but after clicking around the web I learned that Dilley is home to the innocent-sounding South Texas Family Residential Center — the largest immigration detention center in the United States.

Dilley is only one part of a vast complex of "more than 11,800 children, from a few months old to 17, who are housed in nearly 90 facilities in 15 states. They are being held while their parents await immigration proceedings or, if the children arrived unaccompanied, are reviewed for possible asylum themselves." (Time, July 13, 2018).

My friend joined fifteen other attorneys from around the country in an ongoing and comprehensive effort by the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project to provide legal services to detainees. The mission of CARA is to defend the rights of the women and children at Dilley ( She described her 13-hour days at the detention center as non-stop, heartbreaking, and maddening (like reading a summons for a three-year-old to appear before the immigration court). She worked with mothers and children to establish "credible fear of persecution" in their home countries, so that they were not pressured into agreeing to an expedited removal from the US as a condition for seeing their children again.

 Photo inside Dilley Detention Center, ICE.
ICE photo of the Dilley detention center.

The Department of Homeland Security opened the Dilley center in December 2014 under the Obama administration to house mainly women and children who were fleeing horrible violence in Central America and seeking asylum in the United States. The center has a capacity for 2,400, and is privately owned and operated by the GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), which is to say that our immigration centers are a billion-dollar-a-year for profit business farmed out to private contractors.

The Dilley center quickly became a flash point for the national debate about all sorts of important questions — the legality of detaining children (and separating them from their parents), its prison-like conditions, stories of human rights abuses, forced expedited removals, failure of legal representation and due process, and questions about just immigration policies.

Just as my friend went to Dilley, I read a powerful memoir by Francisco Cantú called The Line Becomes a River; Dispatches From the Border (2018). Cantú is a third generation Mexican-American, fluent in Spanish, who specialized in international relations, immigration, and border security as a college student and a Fulbright scholar. Much to the horror of his mother, who spent her career as a Park Service ranger, at the age of twenty-three he then became a Border Patrol agent for almost four years (2008–2012).

He started as a "field agent" in the vast and hostile deserts of Arizona. In the year 2000, agents like Cantú arrested 1.5 million people on the border — those seeking economic opportunity, others trying to reconnect with family, repeat "crossers," delirious and nearly dead "quitters" who had been left behind by their groups, human traffickers, and drug runners of violent cartels who monitored Cantú's movements as much as he watched them. He rescued mothers with children, recovered decomposed bodies that were crawling with ants, and processed people into the vast maw of the ICE bureaucracy.

After a year as a field agent, Cantú moved to the sector intelligence headquarters in Tucson. In the comfort of an air-conditioned office, he did "computer stuff" like analyzing human smuggling techniques and crossing patterns. He later moved to the tactical operations headquarters in El Paso.

 Dilley guard tower.
Dilley guard tower.

In the last third of the book, after he quit the Border Patrol and thought that he had experienced just about everything, Cantú found himself on the other side of the table — in detention centers, court rooms, and law offices, trying to help an undocumented friend who had been arrested and separated from his wife and three children by a border agent just like himself.

After four years as a Border Patrol agent, Cantú was plagued by nightmares. His dentist asked him why he was grinding his teeth. Most of all, despite his desire to complement his intellectual studies with a practical knowledge of border security, Cantú developed a stricken conscience. Yes, he's the first to acknowledge that the Border Patrol does good and necessary work. But much of his book is an acknowledgement of his own complicity in a deeply flawed system. Separating children from their parents, it turns out, is only one manifestation of a vast bureaucracy of institutional violence and deadly policies that dehumanize migrants, says Cantú, and in turn dehumanizes our society. His book hopes to change that.

The Hebrew Scriptures are clear and insistent — do not oppress the stranger, the people who are outside your group but inside your borders. Why? Because you know what it's like to be oppressed as a stranger in a strange land (Exodus 22.21).  

The Hebrew word ger (alien, immigrant) occurs 92 times in the Jewish Scriptures, along with similar words like toshav (migrant), zar (stranger or outsider), and nocri (foreigner). Don't oppress the stranger, have mercy on them, remember that you too were aliens in Egypt.

The ancient Hebrews were even commanded to open sanctuary cities. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Hebrews set aside six "cities of refuge." People who were charged with manslaughter could find asylum in these cities. They were protected from the dark human impulse of vigilante justice until the due process of genuine justice ran its course.

Thinking about my friend's trip to Dilley and the book by Cantú reminded me of the baby Jesus. King Herod of Rome tried to kill him and all the male babies of Bethlehem. The church came to honor the "slaughter of the innocents" as the first martyrs.

 Youngest detainee ID card.
Infant detainee identification card.

Mary and Joseph, who must have been in their early twenties, fled their homeland and Herod's political violence. In one of the most remarkable ironies in the entire Bible, they found asylum in pagan Egypt. The infant Son of God fled as a displaced refugee to a foreign country, Egypt, Israel's sworn and symbolic enemy that had oppressed the Jews for 430 years. The place where Pharaoh had unleashed his own infanticide against the firstborn Israelite children became a refuge for Jesus.

Most of us aren't legislators who craft national policies, or attorneys like my friend who went to Dilley. But we can all play our own small part and do something that is nonetheless a sacred and important obligation. Following our Jewish forbears, we are commanded to "speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy." (Proverbs 31:8–9).


For further reflection, see Francisco Cantú, "Cages Are Cruel. The Desert Is, Too" (New York Times, June 30, 2018). And from Human Rights Watch, a 44-page report called "In the Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells" (February 28, 2018). Both are available online.

Image credits: (1); (2) Sisters, Home Visitors of Mary; and (3) National Justice For Our

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