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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance shines light on immigration detention in new documentary

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance shines light on immigration detention in new documentary

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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance shines light on immigration detention in new documentary

Award-winning film focuses on detainees and those who minister to them


Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), working in conjunction with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), has produced a new documentary on immigration detention in the U.S. “Locked in a Box” follows the lives of individuals who have fled their homelands in search of safety and freedom in the U.S. Instead, the road to freedom has led them to months, or even years, in detention. The film also provides insight on those ministering to the incarcerated.

“Everyone is talking about detention and immigration. We wanted to get at the heart of the issue and tell the human story,” said David Barnhart, film director. “What you see are people: fathers, mothers and children. What immigration detention is doing to families leaves me speechless.”

Susan Krehbiel is PDA catalyst for refugees and asylum and has spent significant time meeting with detainees and those ministering to the incarcerated.

“Personal contact is so important because detainees get lost in all of these debates,” she said. “There are people being held across the country who could use personal visits.”

PDA officials say the immigration detention system continues to expand with 27,000 to 34,000 immigrants in detention on any given day. Approximately 250 facilities, many for-profit, are scattered across the country.

“The response from Congress is enforcement first. Fixing the broken immigration system will come later,” said Krehbiel. “Everyone admits the laws are broken, but the focus is enforcement. We need to shift away from that approach.”

Working in partnership with LIRS, PDA has supported the development of visitation ministries, legal orientation programs and other community based services to help those who remain locked up.

“This film tries to lift up visitation ministry as a way for churches and others in the community to engage and see firsthand,” Barnhart said. “People have come out of the visitation experience unable to speak because they’re so angry and impacted by it.”

Barnhart said most of the detainees came to the U.S. to protect their families, seek freedom and a new life. Many, he said, were fleeing war, drug trafficking and gang violence where their families were threatened.

“Many people that come here have some form of post-traumatic stress and other serious issues,” said Barnhart. “One former detainee we talked to traveled through 12 different countries to escape religious persecution, torture and jail. Another saw his own son murdered by gangs and had to flee his country just to survive. They come here seeking asylum and then find themselves locked up for months and even years.”

Church officials believe incarceration is the problem and not the answer, saying there are other solutions that are much more humane and helpful to those who come to this country seeking freedom.

“Many of our partners provide community-based programs so immigrants could be released to a partner with the resources and support they need,” said Krehbiel. “Some of the delay in processing is the low number of immigration court judges. Those working now are overwhelmed with a backlog of cases and it slows down the process for people.”

PDA officials are encouraging churches to schedule screenings of the film as they have done with previous church documentaries.

“Just from word of mouth, we already have more than 30 churches that want to host screening events and panel discussions, inviting other churches and community members to participate in the conversation,” said Barnhart. “The film is a reflection piece that can facilitate discussion and find ways to engage and be involved through advocacy or visitation ministry. It can be a resource for the church and wider community.”

“This is a powerful documentary that will inspire Presbyterians to take part in detention visitation and to question our government’s practice of detaining migrant adults and families with children,” said Teresa Waggener, manager of the Office of Immigration Issues with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Recently, the film won top honors in the Tryon International Film Festival in North Carolina. For more information on the film, click here.


Choose welcome, not fear

Choose welcome, not fear

This entry was posted in Stories on by .

Choose welcome, not fear


We are a world grieving. We mourn the many deaths, not only in Paris, but also in Beirut, Baghdad, and Egypt. Any sense of security we have had is badly compromised by these horrific events; moreover, our fear of ISIS grows with every successful execution of its violent agenda.

Much has been taken from us but we still hold the choice as to how we react in our grief and fear. Many politicians have rushed from grief to fearful judgment. More than half of the governors of our states have attempted to protect their citizens by issuing declarations denying entry of Syrian refugees into their states (as if all of the potential terrorists are Syrian). Some have gone so far as to call for denial of entry to all refugees at the present time, as if that will guarantee safety to the citizens of their state.

As U.S. governors pledge to refuse Syrian refugees within their states and some presidential hopefuls promise to abandon the refugee program altogether, we the people have a choice to make. We can choose to follow those who would have us hide in fear or we can choose hope.

Our nation, for decades, has chosen hope and welcome for those fleeing war and persecution. Since 1975, more than three million refugees have found safety and security within our nation’s borders. Right now 11 million Syrians cannot go to school, tend to their land, or raise their children in the place they know as home. They cannot do these things because they, themselves, have been terrorized for far too long by numerous factions, including their own government.

Do we choose to abandon our plan to protect these Syrians because the people who have been threatening them are now threatening the West as well? ISIS has taken lives; they have taken our sense of security. Do we now hand over our hope and compassion to them?

Obviously, we need to move forward with a disciplined response, expediting security checks such as those employed by the U.S. refugee admission program. To refuse certain persons who are fleeing terror and persecution because they are “Syrian” or of some other particular ethnic group is unjust and may be illegal under U.S. law. We can be disciplined and, at the same time, led to love beyond our own limited, fearful vision.

After the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples hid in fear. They locked the doors but God had another plan. Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn. 20:21). We were not meant to hide. We were meant to walk out in hope and compassion.  Author, poet, and peace activist Wendell Berry wrote, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation” (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, “The Body and the Earth,” p. 99). The way to end terror is to prove that those who demonize us are wrong. We are not a heartless secular culture. We must witness to the Gospel with generous hospitality. To hide in fear is a mistake. Fear is the ammunition of terror. Hope is the best defense.