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Reflections on Christmas at the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Emily Sollie

Lenny stands next to the bank of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. He can see the U.S. from where he stands in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, but he can’t get there. As a Venezuelan, he is not allowed to enter the country due to the controversial Title 42 policy, an emergency public-health measure enacted during the pandemic that was later expanded to include Venezuelans. A former soldier in the Venezuelan armed forces, he decided to leave his home country looking for greater opportunities. Now he squeaks by with odd jobs – unable to finish his journey to America, unable to go home, and uncertain what the future holds. A federal district court in Washington D.C. recently vacated the Title 42 order for violating U.S. law; it was scheduled to end on December 21, pending an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision is imminent, which could mean more delays.

A river cuts the foreground, while a line of people gathers in front of an opening in the bridge.

Photo credit: Emily Sollie

Just across the river in El Paso, Maria, from El Salvador, sits on the sofa in a respite shelter for migrants. She rubs her pregnant belly as she gazes at the Christmas tree the shelter staff and guests have decorated, an attempt at fostering holiday cheer. “May I pray for you?” asks Rev. Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán, pastor of Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey in El Paso. They are at 30-bed short-term shelter for migrant families. Her congregation serves migrants on the weekdays. The young woman nods, and the pastor puts a hand on her shoulder and whispers a prayer in Spanish.

I met Lenny and Maria on a visit to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez earlier this month with AMMPARO colleagues. We were there just days before a high number of asylum-seekers began crossing the Mexico-US border, many aiming to turn themselves in to border officials on the other side. This has made national headlines. Their arrival has created a humanitarian emergency within the city, as officials scramble to accommodate thousands more people than city shelters have capacity to house.

Now, back in my comfortable home in Washington D.C. and preparing for Christmas with my family, I find myself thinking of them and the thousands of others like them, for whom this season is perhaps less joyful, filled with uncertainty for the future. I think of the words Pastor Rose Mary preached, the morning before she prayed with Maria:

“We need to be guided with God’s wisdom and love so we can give hope to the world … we are His instruments here on Earth. I am thankful to God for this church – for giving hospitality to the stranger.”

The pastor’s eyes teared up as she recalled a tragedy in her own family.

“If you just focus on your own problems,” she said, “you will drown. I know. I’ve been there. But when you focus on praising God and helping others, your soul starts to heal.”

We are called to welcome the stranger. We are called to give hospitality to refugees and immigrants. We are called to see the face of God in the faces of our brothers and sisters in need.

As I prepare for the festivities with my family, I reflect on this calling and I also pray. I pray for migrants and refugees and all those seeking safety, shelter, and opportunity. I pray for Pastor Rose Mary and Cristo Rey, and all who welcome the stranger. I pray for our elected and appointed officials, who make policy decisions that affect the lives of millions.

I pray for Maria – that her child, like one born in a manger long ago and far away, will be delivered safely, will be healthy, and will have a warm place to call home.

Emily Sollie is an Interpretation Associate for the ELCA. She accompanied the ELCA AMMPARO staff on a week-long trip to U.S.-Mexico Border that included visits to multiple ELCA synods and congregations accompanying migrants, like Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey. The names of the two individuals in this reflection have been altered to protect their identity.

You can support AMMPARO, working with our companion churches and partners, to accompany migrant families and individuals by donating to the ELCA and dedicating your gift to “AMMPARO.” You can access that form here.

Response to Recent Arrivals of Migrants By Bus

“Quienes cruzan por nuestro país para llegar a un mejor lugar para vivir son seres humanos con necesidades que comen, que beben y que necesitan descansar. No permitamos que el rechazo y la xenofobia sean más visibles que los grandes actos de justicia y amor de Dios” —Moisés Pérez Espino, Estudios Bíblicos; Antiguo Testamento y Migración (page 52).

“Those who cross through our country to get to a better place to live are human beings with needs who eat, who drink and who need to rest. Let us not allow rejection and xenophobia to be more visible than God’s great acts of justice and love” —Moises Perez Espino, Biblical Studies; Old Testament and Migration (page 52).

The escalation of migrants arriving at the southern border is not new, but the evolving nature of their transportation—often without notice—to cities and communities throughout the United States is unprecedented. Migration is rooted in many familiar patterns, but it is also a symptom of the conflagration of worldwide conflicts, persecution, climate change and life-destroying violence. This recent increase in migration through the Americas has been driven by displacement in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba—but also in nations such as Haiti and Cameroon. Those who come to the border are human beings who live, breath and want, as we do, for safety and a place to rest.

We join the international and local community in condemning the dehumanizing treatment of migrants at large—those en route, at and within our border. Further, we join the international and local community in urging our elected officials to respect the dignity of human lives. This necessitates taking a holistic approach to migration while considering the migrants’ rights and the legal and human right to seek protection. We can step up to help our neighbors. We must not allow rejection and xenophobia to stand in the way of the love of God. Extending hospitality to the stranger is one of the most prudent ways that Jesus called us to extend the reach of God’s love. That’s the call to action in this moment.

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”(Matthew 25:35)

The governments of Texas, Arizona and Florida have sent roughly 13,000 migrants to cities including Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Chicago. Conversely, the outpouring of support for these migrants from local communities and faith organizations has been soul-uplifting and inspiring. Civil society organizations and local and state governments have quickly mobilized in response to the abrupt arrival of migrants on buses or flights organized by governors of other states. Essentials like immediate respite, medical attention, food, shelter and other services have been indiscriminately provided. This follows in the tradition of hospitality by border communities and other cities throughout the U.S. preceding the action of these governors.

The process for the arrival of migrants by way of these buses is morally reprehensible. On April 14, AMMPARO joined the Interfaith Immigration Coalition for a welcome rally in Washington, D.C., to call out this inhumane situation. On April 19, the Southwest Texas, the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana and the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast synods disseminated a letter calling on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to cease this cruel treatment and to instead work with faith partners and the federal government to provide access to fairness and humanity in the asylum system.

Today, immigration coalitions in prospective states have begun mobilizing for the possible arrival of buses to their sanctuary cities. The decision to send or not to send migrants must be done with the informed consent of the individuals, along with meaningful coordination of the receiving communities and the federal government’s deployment of resources, so that the welcome can come together in a way befitting this humanitarian situation.

But Aren’t These Migrants Taking Advantage of Our Laws?

These migrants–most are asylum seekers–are doing nothing wrong. They have surrendered to border officers to be screened and processed, with many hoping to lawfully pursue asylum claims pursuant to U.S. refugee law. Referring to this group as illegal is not correct, moreover, it is a harmful rhetoric device used to unfairly denigrate the character of all immigrants, in particular undocumented people. Regardless of manner of entry, an individual may remain legally in the U.S. for the asylum process. (See footnote).

After initial processing, the Department of Homeland Security may release migrants that do not pose a flight or safety risk from federal custody into Texas and Arizona so they can pursue their asylum claims. Many wish to pursue these claims in other cities, committing to meet ICE check-ins and court hearings and abide by U.S. laws.

Isn’t what happened in Martha’s Vineyard illegal?

Applying for asylum before immigration courts can take months or years. Allegedly, migrants on the specific flight to Martha’s Vineyard were misled about where they were being sent and also about the opportunities they could find, lured by false promises of employment, housing, educational opportunities and other assistance. This misrepresentation is dishonest and a dangerous prevarication that could have negative consequences on the migrants’ immigration proceedings. A lawsuit against the state of Florida has recently been filed in the Massachusetts District Court.

Where is AMMPARO showing up for bused migrants and communities?

From the very beginning of the busing, ELCA AMMPARO network members, congregations and partners, as well as staff, have been involved through local communication efforts, engagement and advocacy in cities where migrants have been bused. In addition, AMMPARO and Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) have been working to see how AMMPARO, ELCA World Hunger and LDR can support this emergency response work. A few grants have been provided to organizations and congregations engaged in assisting bused migrants, with priority given to housing, food and other essentials needs.

While we don’t know what the future will bring, ELCA members and congregations can take action by:

  • Supporting local efforts to meet the buses and provide housing, food, legal orientation and other essentials for migrants.*
  • Gathering with migrant community organizations and local government officials in sanctuary cities likely to be targeted for busing to assess capacity and organize an emergency plan to meet the migrants.
  • Recognizing that any congregation, no matter where it is located, can sponsor asylum-seekers. If your congregation is interested in asylum-seeker sponsorship, reach out to Mary Campbell, program director for AMMPARO, at
  • Connecting local experiences and anecdotes of welcome to federal advocacy by contacting Giovana Oaxaca, ELCA program director for migration policy, at

Edit: This post was updated to reflect the alleged nature of the events that transpired in Martha’s Vineyard, which are still under investigation. An explanation of how U.S. asylum can be sought regardless of manner of entry was also updated. Unauthorized entry is a violation of U.S. law. Asylum seekers who arrive at a U.S. port of entry or enter the United States without inspection generally must apply through the defensive or expedited asylum processes. (For more information: Asylum in the United States,  American Immigration Council) (9/30/2022)

*Update 2/09/2023: In light of recent developments, including state laws, be aware of local ordinances, state, and federal laws that may apply. You may need to consult a lawyer with expertise in your local area if you do have questions or concerns. If you have any general questions, please contact us by email.

Welcoming Afghan Newcomers

(original from ELCA Advocacy view here)

Across the United States and over the years, places of worship and people of faith have been key partners in welcoming refugees, asylum seekers and others in need of hospitality. ELCA members and congregations have recently poured in their concern, prayers, and offers of assistance for uprooted Afghan neighbors following the end of the U.S.’ long war in Afghanistan. As ELCA and through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), we can continue to offer our support in the months and years ahead. The very heart of Christian faith leads us to welcome the newcomer among us.

The following is an overview of what’s happened, how Lutheran communities are stepping up to support, and where you can engage further by advocating for legal protections for new arrivals.


WEBINAR VIDEO: “Walking Beside Our Afghan Neighbors”

*NEW* The webinar, “Walking Beside Our Afghan Neighbors,” provided great insights from key Lutheran leaders, including a congregation leader involved in resettlement, a Lutheran social service organization, ELCA advocacy staff and LIRS policy leadership. View the archive of the one-hour session, originally presented Nov. 18, 2021. View from the ELCA Vimeo page at (program begins at 1 minute 20 seconds).



According to recent government figures, the United States is on pace to resettle around 75,000+ Afghans in the coming weeks. The U.S. government has evacuated tens of thousands of men, women and children from Afghanistan in recent months and plans to continue evacuation and resettlement operations through 2022.1


Humanitarian Concerns

In Afghanistan, the situation continues to deteriorate, especially for many women and girls.  Advancements in women’s rights, education, employment, and political opportunities appear at risk under the Taliban government.2 Additionally, Afghanistan is contending with a worsening humanitarian crisis. Most recent aid has gone towards staving off food insecurity and the collapse of the public health system and economy.3 Oftentimes, it is women and children who suffer the most during periods of prolonged conflict.

The international community and faith communities have continued to urge protection of civilians, including women and girls, academics, journalists, human rights defenders, and members of ethnic, religious, and other minority group from harm. The U.S. government has resumed the priority evacuation of some former U.S.-affiliated Afghans—mostly visa applicants left behind in the hasty operation, while tragically excluding others still at risk.


Humanitarian Parole

During the evacuation operations, many Afghans were admitted to the United States under temporary humanitarian parole status. Humanitarian parole, unlike U.S. refugee status or Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) status, expires after two-years, offers limited access to benefits, and has no direct path to lawful permanent residency (i.e. a “green card”). Afghans with this status face an uncertain future once they arrive.

Fortunately, as a part of the stop-gap funding bill recently passed by Congress and signed by the president on Sept. 30, lawmakers authorized Afghans admitted with parole to receive the same benefits as refugees, an ID and/or driver’s license.


Resettlement Processing

After being processed and rigorously screened on military bases, Afghan individuals and families are referred to resettlement agencies before continuing to their next destination. The multi-agency, Operation Allies Welcome has been coordinating their arrival, assistance, and resettlement with the help of resettlement agencies like LIRS through its affiliates.

The government has also launched the private Sponsor Circle Program, created to enable groups to sponsor and assist Afghans directly in acknowledge of unmet need. This program operates parallel to the existing framework of private resettlement agencies long supported by the American public and faith-based organizations.



Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) has reached out to synods, congregations and affiliates taking an active role in welcoming Afghan families. Support for volunteers and interpreters is critical, as are housing assistance, health and wellness care, and fostering community belonging. LDR works in partnership with LIRS and Church World Service (CWS), the lead organizations in resettling Afghan families.



Local connections, for example your area Lutheran Social Service (LSS) location, are a great first place to find out what needs you can help meet in your immediate community.

  • The Refugee Council USA has posted a map that pinpoints local resettlement agencies, including LSS affiliates, which may direct you to volunteer opportunities.
  • A more detailed state-by-state is available in the Reception & Placement Affiliate Directory (May 2021) and can help direct you to local opportunities.

LIRS continues to advocate for evacuation of Afghans and their families to give them a place of safety on U.S. soil. “Since we launched our Afghanistan-focused volunteer portal, LIRS and our partners have received more than 45,000 volunteer applications.” Applications to volunteer with LIRS are still open. Their team is hard at work connecting groups and individuals with opportunities to “help with airport pick-ups, apartment set-ups, English lessons, and other critical services,” states the LIRS “How to Help Afghan Refugees” page.

Church World Service (CWS) has a new opportunity for remote placement of Afghan refugees for congregations that are more than 100 miles from a local resettlement office.

  • Discover more about Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) Program community partners from CWS.


A Resettlement Story shared by Lutheran Services Iowa (LSI) staff member

“’Home’ and ‘welcome’ are two concepts that have been central to Lutheran Services Iowa since our founding in 1864. With hearts full of prayer for vulnerable individuals remaining in Afghanistan, we are proud to open our arms to resettle those arriving in Iowa. As a resettlement partner of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, LSI is prepared to resettle 525 Afghans and other refugees in Des Moines, Sioux City, and other areas of the state in the coming months. To support current resettlement needs, LSI is actively recruiting Pashto and Dari interpreters, training volunteers, soliciting financial and in-kind donations, and hiring additional staff. LSI is working with property owners, employers, community partners, and faith leaders to meet individuals’ needs not only when they arrive at the airport, but in the months and years after. LSI has a broad array of post-resettlement services, such as financial literacy, small business development, family wellness, English classes, and more designed to ensure newcomers to our community thrive. [We’re responding] to the love of Jesus Christ through compassionate service.”



The “Safety for Our At-Risk Neighbors in Afghanistan” Action Alert from the ELCA Advocacy Action Center received a lot of support from Lutherans and friends who joined the ELCA in urging a strong federal response to support Afghan neighbors still at risk. The customizable way to reach out to your member of congress is still active.

  • Use the Action Alert to express your priorities as we “urge the administration and Congress to commit to providing refuge for those at-risk and expand and expedite their access to the United States resettlement program.”


Afghan Adjustment Act Needed

Again, we are called to be leaders in society in both offering hospitality and advocating for the newcomer. Congress has a real opportunity to come together, to acknowledge the humanity of our Afghan neighbors, and to realize the hope of a future free from harm. The Administration and Congress must be able to simultaneously ensure a future for Afghans in Afghanistan, prioritize pathways to safety, pass legal protections for newcomers, and address barriers holding families apart.

An uncertain legal limbo awaits Afghans who fled their war-torn country unless Congress takes urgent action to introduce and pass an Afghan Adjustment Act. An Afghan Adjustment Act would allow humanitarian parole recipients, here in the United States, to adjust their status, providing long-term stability and security for themselves and families. Congress has authorized similar legal pathways for Cuban and South Asian refugees. The ELCA is actively monitoring developments and advocating for a quick response to the plight of our Afghan neighbors caught in this precarious situation.



People of faith in the ELCA are uniquely poised to advocate for a welcome that lives up to the biblical call to love our neighbor, as a church that “holds power accountable, advocates justice, stands with those who are poor and vulnerable, provides sanctuary, and meets human needs” (from the ELCA social statement For Peace in God’s World). In the decade after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Lutheran congregations sponsored over 50,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.4 We are here, as Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton articulated in her “Supporting Afghanistan” video, for the long welcome.

Again, we hear God’s call to accompany one another while speaking up for a generous policy of welcome. We will walk with our Afghan neighbors as they arrive, as they are resettled, and as they continue to become part of our communities. And we will advocate with and for our neighbors in this moment of need.


1  The administration is seeking $6.4 billion for the ongoing effort to resettle Afghans who were evacuated during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
2  More in “What Will Peace Talks Bode for Afghan Women?” (International Crisis Group, 4/6/20)
3  Additional information is available in “Donors pledge $1bn in aid for Afghanistan as UN warns of crisis” (Al Jazeera article, 9/13/21)
4  Find this statistic and more in the ELCA social message “Immigration.”

Welcoming Migrants at the Border and AMMPARO: A Whole-Church Response Mobilized

An increase in unaccompanied children and asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico has given rise to claims of a crisis. Individuals, families and children seeking protection are no crisis — the crisis is the circumstances they are fleeing and the moral challenge of safe welcome. To offer hope and hospitality to the sojourner in this season of Easter is to bear witness to the suffering that affects the lives of so many. Through acts of love and service, the ELCA, with its strategy of Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO), continues to support migrants and advocate for just and compassionate solutions.



In recent weeks, growing insecurity has driven more families and children to the border. Not that long ago, Central America was hit with back-to-back hurricanes that caused widespread destruction and massive internal displacement. The World Food Programme estimates that nearly 8 million people in Central America are chronically hungry because of climate-driven events compounded by the pandemic. Targeted violence and crime, gender-based violence, corruption and state repression are additional factors forcing people to leave their homes. Unless these deeper issues are addressed, people will continue to migrate.


To put the situation in context: border encounters have been rising for months despite punitive measures put in place to discourage migration at the start of the pandemic. Between April and December 2020, total apprehension of single adults increased, as did those of family units and unaccompanied children, although by smaller margins. It’s still the case that the majority of people are expelled — most under Title 42, a rule invoked by the Trump administration to expel virtually all border arrivals. This policy has disproportionately impacted Black migrants from African and Caribbean countries. Migration also ebbs and flows — shifts that are based on the time of year and season. It is true that the release of unaccompanied children and a portion of families encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border have increased, but the emergency here stems from the practical challenge of moving migrants quickly through an infrastructure that has been decimated over the years and made even worse now by capacity issues due to the pandemic. The Biden administration policy is to accept unaccompanied children under age 18, which is how so many children have entered the care of the government while they wait to be reunited with their parents or a sponsor. Shelters have struggled to keep up with the new arrivals.


No event or escalation of need warrants calling migrants a crisis. Neither is scapegoating migrants an acceptable message. No significant rise in the spread of COVID-19 has been attributed to recent arrivals.



The United States can protect people seeking safety and also safeguard public health. Rebuilding capacity to humanely welcome and process asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children will take time. With time and resources, the pressure should gradually improve, but long-lasting solutions are also needed to address the root causes of migration as well as the impractical aspects of the U.S. immigration system that hamper family reunification and access to asylum. More unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2020 than in any other February on record. (The highest number ever recorded was in May 2019). In the last few years, and especially during the pandemic, the systems of protection available to vulnerable migrants such as children have eroded badly. Any moral path forward must envision a system that humanely welcomes and processes asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children.



Our congregations and companions are already responding to the needs of families and children after they have crossed the Mexican border into the United States and been released by border authorities. Churches and synods participating in the ELCA’s AMMPARO strategy work to address the critical needs of recently arrived children and families alongside direct-service providers, immigrant organizations and other secular and interfaith partners. This is a whole-church, whole-society mobilization of resources, compassion and expertise to ensure that migrants are treated humanely and granted amparo — refuge.


This witness is complemented by ELCA advocacy efforts that center on protecting the right to seek asylum and apply for refugee status in the face of unprecedented global need. Dubious policies enacted to restrict immigration to the United States conflict with its domestic and international obligations. Any obstacle to a person lawfully seeking protection must be reconsidered. The ELCA advocates for laws that vigorously protect unaccompanied children and families, asylum-seekers and refugees.



This toolkit from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC) summarizes recent actions and events that people of faith can learn about and join to help respond to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can stay informed by visiting the AMMPARO Facebook page, where developments at the border are closely monitored by AMMPARO. Building awareness of the plight of migrants, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, disabled, women or unaccompanied children, can counter the stigmatization and discrimination that permeate the public consciousness.


The ELCA social statement For Peace in God’s World (1995) states: “Faith in the crucified and risen Lord strengthens us to persist even when God seems absent in a violent and unjust world, and when weariness and hopelessness threaten to overwhelm us.” We pray that God’s grace and everlasting love will wash over the weary migrant and give us the guidance and wisdom to restore hope at the border.

Migrating Women and their Experience with Gender-Based Violence

by Giovana Oaxaca, Program Director for Migration Policy

The allegations of medical neglect and invasive gynecological procedures in a privately-run detention center in Irwin County, Ocilla, Ga.—including coerced sterilization—quickly drew disbelief and condemnation worldwide this fall. Far from unique, these shocking allegations echo the historic and current reality of cruel and inhumane treatment towards migrant women. At every stage and step of their lives, migrants, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are at special risk of having their fundamental human rights violated.


GBV as a migration driver

What drives people to migrate will vary from person to person, but one of the most cited reasons is to escape from domestic abuse and violence. For countless women, girls, and LGTBQIA+ persons in the Northern Triangle of Central America–El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—sexual- and gender-based violence (GBV) is inescapable reality. Every day, over 100 cases of violence against women are filed in Guatemala. In 2018, a woman was killed in Honduras every 18 hours. El Salvador, which has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America, reported 84 femicides in an 8-month span of time in 2020 at the height of pandemic quarantine measures. Globally, gender-based violence is widely recognized as a key human rights issue, as highlighted in the international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

These figures likely do not capture the full scope of the violence experienced by women. Social stigma, fear of retribution and lack of confidence in authorities often contribute to underreporting.


Shifts in U.S. Policy Toward Asylum Seekers

The United States has a policy of granting limited humanitarian protections to persons fleeing gender-based persecution and violence. Unfortunately, overtime, these protections have become harder to access. Under President Trump, the U.S. government has undermined protections for people fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence and turned away asylum seekers, trapping families, men, women and children in precarious conditions without any meaningful access to protection. People at risk of GBV thus contend with persecution at home, in transit, and even from U.S. authorities.


ELCA responds to human need

While working with migrating, returned and deported women, civil society organizations and faith-partners have expressed the need for services geared at empowering women socially, politically and economically. The ELCA’s AMMPARO strategy (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities) has placed a special emphasis on working with advocates in Central America who give witness to these perilous conditions and supported their advocacy efforts.

“Migrants, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers often suffer more when they are women, girls, or gender non-conforming people” notes the ELCA social statement Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action.” “Women, girls, and people who identify as non-binary must not be deprived of their human or civil rights.” When the disturbing account of human rights violations against immigrant women in custody of the privately run Irwin County Detention Center surfaced, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton stated, “As the ELCA we strongly condemn gender-based violence and violations of human rights wherever they occur.”


Threats in U.S. detention

Abuse of women is widespread in immigration detention centers and constitutes a serious threat to the civil and personal liberties of migrants. The detained population has multiplied over the last 30 years under a U.S. government policy to apprehend and detain increasing numbers of immigrants. Alternatives such as community-based alternatives to detention, although humane, less costly and more effective, have not been pursued, overburdening an already strained system at the expense of the people detained.

The United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) guidance says that all immigration practices should implement special measures to protect women from sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation in detention. According to the UNHCR, other groups that are vulnerable to abuse, like children and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, should also be afforded special measures to guarantee their safety. The UNHCR mainly advocates that detention should be used as a measure of last resort and asylum seekers should be given every opportunity to seek protection. The U.S. government must do more to meet even this basic standard of care.

In fact, the U.S. federal government has become one of the most egregious perpetrators and accessories of GBV. Between 2010 and 2017, there was a staggering 1,224 complaints of sexual assault abuse in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention yet only 43 investigations. Based upon known patterns, these numbers likely reflect underreporting. We know people don’t come forward out of fear of retaliation and are not consistently supported by confidence in prosecution of perpetrators. Like most cases of GBV, these acts are committed in nearly total impunity.


What can we do?

Increased scrutiny at Irwin creates new incentives for advocacy

  • Supporting policies that aim to curb profiting from people’s suffering are one way to stamp out immigration practices in the U.S. that deprive women of their liberty and rights.
  • Restoring the asylum system so that victims have access to humanitarian protections goes without saying—though the underlying definition of gender-based asylum could stand to be improved.
  • Supporting survivors of violence at the onset through advocacy in their home countries, so that they do not feel obligated to flee, must also be an objective of any strategy to prevent and mitigate acts of GBV. The escalation of intimate partner violence, evidenced by the spike in femicides in El Salvador, signals the need to expand local programs for women in need of protection in their homes.
  • The Keeping Women and Girls Safe from the Start Act of 2020 (S. 4003) includes some important measures to expand the U.S. government’s ability to prevent gender-based violence and provide early interventions at the onset of humanitarian emergencies.

These are just a few examples of systemic and institutional changes that can be made, and they are very likely to take some time to come to be implemented. However, these lay the groundwork for a just and compassionate solution to the unacceptable reality of sexual- and gender-based violence.