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This past week the U.S. Justice Department instituted new rules pertaining to the detention of children and families at the southern border. The ruling changes the Flores settlement of 1997 that said children and families are to be held in the least restrictive manner as possible, and that children needed to be released from custody within 20 days. The Flores settlement also established basic guidelines for care while families were in custody. The new ruling allows families and children to be held indefinitely, and it abolishes the minimum guidelines for care.

The reason for the new rule, according to the Trump administration, is twofold: First, it keeps families together during the asylum seeking process, and second, it deters the use of children as a way to get access to the United States. One person in the administration described it as a deterrent to prevent children from being used as pawns in the immigration debate. While it sounds reasonable, it’s a bit more complicated.

Two weeks ago I spent a Sunday in Tijuana, Mexico. We visited a church that takes in immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. We listened to one woman talk about the difficulties she left behind, the violence and threats from gangs wanting money from their local business in exchange for protection. She traveled with her children, believing the dangerous trip was worth it because the conditions were unlivable–she had no choice but to head north. Later that afternoon, I asked the head pastor what she would say to someone in the U.S. government. “We need help,” she said. “People come because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. These people don’t want to leave their homes, but they don’t feel they have a choice.” She then said the best thing individuals, organizations, and governments can do is to address the conditions in these countries that cause people to leave in the first place.

Which brings me back to this new law. Incarcerating families indefinitely will not stop the flow to the border. When people feel they have no other option, when they see asylum or immigration as the only way out, they will come. When people feel the lives of their family are threatened, they will come. They will risk the danger, they will risk incarceration, and they will risk deportation because they see no other alternative. They are desperate, and when people are desperate nothing will deter them from seeking a better life.

A much better solution is for the United States to invest money and resources in the countries from which people are coming. Before you say, “The United States can’t get involved in other countries,” it’s important we study our history. People are coming from countries where the U.S. has already been involved in creating the unstable conditions that have caused people to migrate north. (For an essay on Honduras click here. For El Salvador click here.) It’s time to address the problem at the root. Most immigrants don’t want to leave their homeland, but they feel they have no choice. Julian Castro has suggested the need for a Central American Marshall plan, as has President Trump. Others believe such a plan will not work given the lack of democratic institutions needed to deal with corruption. Regardless, the U.S. had a role in making the mess, we need to have a role in making things right.

These changes to the Flores settlement will not deter immigrants from bringing children and families to the border. It’s time for the Christian community to set aside partisan ideology and work for solutions that contribute to the flourishing of our neighbors to the south. Contact your members of congress and your senators, and tell them to oppose this new ruling. Incarcerating families and children is not the answer.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Jason. You are 100% correct and this has been borne out many times by in-depth reporting and investigative journalism by people like Sonia Nazzario. It’s difficult to conceive of a deterrent that would be stronger than a mother’s love for her children and her fear of their being harmed by violent gangs. Unfortunately in the current climate many are unable to see loving mothers of children. People are being trained to see only a mass of dirty, violent, drug-laden criminals who are “invading” and “infesting” our country. Until THAT also changes, we will be motivated neither to treat these immigrants humanely nor be moved to work on changing the conditions in places like Honduras.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jason, I heard what you are saying from a student at Dordt who is from Honduras. Keep saying what you are saying.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Jason, for this most recent firsthand report and reflection of Central American history, now as relating to immigrants and refugees. I feel compelled to say, though, that every important thing you write has been written and said for many, many years, something you probably know and that won’t surprise you. In fact, during and after our nine years with Christian Reformed World Missions in the 70s and 80s, I was writing (in the *Reformed Journal,* even *The Banner*) and saying the same things, but with different names attached–names like F.D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, even Jimmy Carter (though he did noble work with the Panama Canal negotiations) and Ronald Reagan, to bring our observations into the same era. Ray Bonner was writing those things for a very long time from Central America and still does–thanks for linking a recent article by him. Walter La Feber’s *Inevitable Revolutions*, Steven Schlesinger (Arthur Jr.’s son) and Stephen Kinzer’s *Bitter Fruit*, Eduardo Galeano’s *Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina*, Carlos Luis Fallas’s *Mamita Yunai*–to name a few books among hundreds–chronicle and analyze the US Government’s and proto multi-national companies’ imperialistic misbehaviour not only in Central America, but throughout the hemisphere. Anti-communist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s law firm worked for United Fruit Company (“Mamita Yunia” in Central America slang) and was complicit with CIA planning in the 1954 coup in Guatemala that toppled elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Brother–and fellow Presbyterian–Allen Dulles was on United Fruit’s board. Did all this start with the Monroe Doctrine? Or was it part of US DNA that whipped Mother Britain’s one empire only to spawn that devil’s offspring? And it’s impossible for anyone who eats bananas or pineapples and more to avoid complicity, as United and Chiquita brands are today’s descendants of Mamita Yunai. And tragically or ironically, “Minor” (often spelled “Maynor”) remains a popular boy’s name in Central America, an eponym of Minor Keith, United Fruit’s founding executive. To this day roads and railroads connect plantations to seaports in Central America to ship fruit to the US. Sometimes I think the Preacher of Ecclesiastes 12:12 was far more prescient than ever imagined, because it seems that no matter how many books are written to unmask evil, not much seems to change in US foreign or business policy. America was really first a long time before the current child in the White House ever campaigned.

  • Ronald Dykstra says:

    Dear Jason,
    If safety is the objective, that is available in Mexico. Thousands of people are successfully making new lives there. It is also a tragedy that thousands of Syrian Christians have been waiting for years now and due to the straining of resources caused by illegal immigrants, they are being denied access. And it’s also a proven fact that the Mexican cartels are using children to fabricate stories designed to bring “families” into the country. “Indefinitely” doesn’t mean forever; the longest estimate I heard was 40 days and the facilities are better than anything on the border.

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