The Hardest Stories to Tell #EndFamilyDetention


The stories we most need to tell are often the hardest to tell. I’ve struggled mightily to figure out how and when to tell this story. I’m sure there will be more to tell, later, but for now I tell it for a simple reason: Patricia and those like her want their story to be heard. I translated this story into Spanish for Patricia and she corrected a few minor details. Everything told here is with her full consent and permission.

I met Patricia in October of last year, while she and her son, Mario, were detained in Karnes Family Detention Jail. Immediately, I was struck by her smile and her positive energy and bright eyes. Though she was optimistic and happy, it was impossible not to feel the deep sadness within her. We didn’t talk about the details, then, but I knew they must have been horrific. She fled El Salvador with her eight year old son, Mario, because his life was in danger. He would be forced into a gang if she didn’t get him out, and quickly. Mario is eight years old. He has a sister they had to leave behind.

I went to visit Karnes several times, and I brought someone new with me each time, first my colleague, Kelly, then a parishioner from my congregation, Melissa, next my husband, Elias, and finally my two and three year old boys, Clayton and Samuel. This is the part in the story where I want to be crystal clear that I was taking my toddlers to a to a jail where other children their own age and younger are detained as prisoners.

In the visitation area there is a play kitchen and mismatched toys. The three boys played together.  I wrote this in my journal that day:

We sat on the carpeted space with the toys and the little refrigerator… we didn’t talk too much this time about Patricia or El Salvador or what she left behind or what she’s going toward, we just played with the kids. We laughed when Clayton identified a piece of pretend meat as a watermelon. We scolded Samuel for taking a toy away from Mario. We praised Mario for saying ‘That’s ok.’ We pretended we were normal friends, not in a prison.

But we were in a prison, a fact that was painfully and viscerally evident when Clayton asked “Why is the door locked?” I said nothing.

The night after my husband and I brought our boys to Karnes Family Detention Center I had a dream that we were all back there again and when it was time to leave the guards wouldn’t let me take my children out. They said when children come in here, we don’t let them out, ever. You can’t prove that they are yours.  When I woke up the next morning, I told Elias that I was never bringing the children to visit Mario and Patricia again.

I changed my mind and we continued the visits. The nightmares continued, though.

Mercifully, thanks to the dedication of RAICES lawyers and the bond fund, Patricia and Mario were released to come live with us on January 1 of this year, after five months in jail.

I have vivid memories of dinner on New Year’s Day. Some El Salvadoran friends told us that El Pollo Loco was a good choice, and so we got roast chicken with all of the sides. I remember Mario gobbling up every morsel and seconds. We found something for Mario to sleep in. They came to us with the clothes on their backs and some legal papers.

The first few nights with all of us under the same roof were intense and emotional. Elias was out of town for a week and so Patricia and I had a lot of time to talk. She told me about the violence she fled. She told me about the journey. She told me about the incredible sense of isolation and hopelessness she felt in detention and how hope filled and happy she was when we would visit.  She talked about El Salvador and why she had to leave. I journaled about the terrible details of other stories she has shared but I cannot bear to read them.

There has been a visible transformation in eight year old Mario since he has been out of detention. When he was inside, his mother said he was getting sadder and sadder every day, but here, the opposite has been true. Just eight days after getting out of detention I wrote this in my journal “Today at dinner Patricia said “his face is filling out a little bit. he doesn’t have as much of that sad look in his eyes anymore. I wanted to ask her, ‘will there come a time when he doesn’t have it at all?’”

Since January we’ve felt an outpouring of love and support from our community. The church I pastor has showered us with gift cards to the grocery store, clothes, school supplies for Mario, money for vaccines and warm smiles. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition brought hot meals, listening ears, legal help, and a guest house for them to stay in when my parents were in town for an extended visit. We’ve formed a strong bond, and so have our children who play together and fight together like brothers.

Yet, these months have not been without challenge and struggle. It’s not easy to squish two families who barely know each other together in a modest home. We’ve all had moments of stress, misunderstanding and sadness.

At times I felt buried under an avalanche of pain, which has led to tremendous guilt. Why is it, I wondered that I am feeling so much stress when I should be rejoicing that things are getting better for Patricia and Mario? Part of the answer, I think, lies in the fact that seeing Patricia and Mario every day is a constant reminder that there are hundreds of children and their mothers locked inside for-profit (yes, for profit) immigration detention centers like place we first met in Karnes City.

In a few weeks, Patricia and Mario are moving on. They’ve gotten some things situated, they’ve made some choices, and now they’re headed for beautiful Seattle. You can help them get there. My family has never been to the pacific northwest, but now we have the perfect reason to visit.

If you would like to contribute to Patricia and Mario’s relocation fund, there is a Go Fund Me site set up. Donations of any size are welcome. 

Other Ways to Help

To Donate to the Refugee Backpack Program, go HERE.

If you are a faith leader, sign this letter.

To learn more about Family Detention, here are some good places to start:

What I Saw at the Detention Center

Locking up Family Values, Again



An Immigration Policy We Can All Agree On: #EndChildDetention #EndFamilyDetention


I’ve been visiting a mother, Alicia* in family detention in Karnes City for a few months now. Family detention is the almost unbelievable practice of locking up young mothers and their children in prison. No matter what we think about the right of immigrants to cross the border without proper authorization, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anyone believes that children deserve to be locked up. The United Nations agrees. The committee on the rights of the child says:

Children should not be criminalized or subject to punitive measures because of their or their parents’ migration status. The detention of a child because of their or their parent’s migration status constitutes a child rights violation and always contravenes the principle of the best interests of the child.

For several months I’ve been actively volunteering and working with Mission Presbytery’s efforts to help refugees from Central America who find themselves in the bounds of our Presbytery. There are a lot of overlapping, complicated issues. Though we see these issues through the eyes of faith (“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” – Exodus 22:21) our work necessarily takes us to places where broader policy is involved.
Not everyone agrees on what the policy should be. Should there be quotas? Should more people be given asylum? How should new arrivals be handled? Should people be deported right away? How many people should be allowed to come and under what circumstances? What about people who have been here for a long time? And what about family members? Should adult children of US citizens be automatically given visitor’s visas to come visit? (This affects my own family and Elias’s adult children who have not been allowed to visit in the 6 years Elias and I have been married, though they have applied). It would take a lot of blogging to address all of these policies and to propose solutions, and these are all very complicated questions and solutions.

Instead, though, I want to focus on this mother and her children, because I think it’s something most of us can agree on:

Children do not belong in detention. Family detention must be ended.

I’ve heard people who work inside the family detention center in Karnes talk about how nice it is. “The children have school and they are fed three meals a day and they are permitted to play outside.”

These things are true, and even so, family detention is outrageous. When we talk about facts and statistics, sometimes our eyes glaze over. (Although, if you’re interested in facts, I suggest reading THIS or THIS.)

Instead of summarizing the facts you can easily read yourself, I want to tell a story, and it’s a story about the mom I’ve been visiting in detention. More specifically, it’s a story about her 8 year old son, Camilo.*

Alicia says that Camilo is having a lot of difficulty in detention. After making a harrowing journey all the way from central america, fleeing imminent gun violence and threats of death, they spent some challenging days at the US/Mexico border. Once they made their way to Karnes Detention facility, she noticed the problems: acting out at school, hitting his head against the wall, outbursts. She says he cries a lot. One of the problems, according to Alicia, is that he can’t make friends in detention. Friends mysteriously arrive and leave. He doesn’t understand why. He also doesn’t understand why they can’t go anywhere. Ever. They can’t go to the store or to church or to the soccer field. They can’t go to get a haircut.

It’s this last one I want to talk about for a second: a haircut. Last time I went to visit Alicia, I asked about Camilo. “He’s sad today. He was supposed to get his haircut, but then he didn’t. He’s been crying about it.”

It didn’t seem like she wanted to talk more about it, and so we didn’t. But I can’t stop thinking about that haircut. As I pack my two boys up in the car to take them here and there and everywhere, I can’t stop thinking about the hundreds of children in Karnes Detention facility who are locked up, in cells, because their parents dared to try and give them a better life. Family detention is outrageously costly to the US government. There are cheaper and more humane options.

#EndFamilyDetention #EndChildDetention

Three ways to begin to make a difference about child detention in the US:

1. Look for information and learn about it. Family Detention seems to get lost sometimes in the middle of a much larger immigration debate. Another reason it gets lost is that the family detention facilities are far out of the way of any major city or area. Out of sight, but not out of mind.

2. Don’t worry too much about being “too political.” It’s a dangerous narrative out there when showing compassion and basic common sense is somehow a political agenda. There is room for all kinds of politics in the immigration debate. There is not room to ever justify locking up children and denying them freedom to live in a house with friends or family while their cases are processed. Whichever political party you support, your leaders can get on board with some kind of meaningful reform. Children deserve to be free. (And, yes, some can come live with me. Mission Presbytery has families lining up to receive families in our own homes if people are given the opportunity).

3. Connect:

Mission Presbytery Refugee Family Response

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

See also: Babies in Jails


*Names changed for privacy