Interfaith Welcome Coalition

Interfaith Welcome Coalition



An hour southeast of San Antonio, Texas, surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, is a sprawling white building with a sign reading, “Karnes County Residential Center.” Behind the walls of this privately run facility are beds for over 200 immigrant families in Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody (CARA 2015).

In response to the increase of migrant families from Central America entering the United States in the summer of 2014, the Obama administration authorized the opening of several family detention centers like Karnes. The Karnes detention center opened in August 2014, followed months later by the opening of another detention center in Dilley Texas, approximately 100 miles away. Together, the two facilities house up to 3,000 women and children during their removal proceedings and beyond (ABA 2015; CCA; GEO).

ICE officials maintain that these detention centers meet the needs of families and point out the array of services they provide, such as classes for children and on-site health clinics (USDHS 2014). However, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies released a report in 2015 documenting how family detention centers commonly violate human rights and due process (MRS/USCCB and CMS 2015).

In many ways, Karnes operates like a prison. Women report that guards wake them and their children every hour through the night to account for all detainees (Human Rights First 2015). A 2008 United Nations (UN) report on US immigration detention facilities found systemic problems regarding medical care and mental health services (OAS 2010). Women at the Karnes and Dilley detention centers claim that medical staff ignores the health needs of their children, which have led in some cases to their hospitalization. The remote location of the facilities makes it extremely difficult for detainees to secure pro bono or low cost legal assistance. Even those lawyers able to reach the facilities face barriers such as limited access to clients (MRS/USCCB and CMS 2015). Furthermore, many migrants report mental-health problems and increased anxiety, even after release. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression often worsen the longer an individual is detained (Physicians for Human Rights 2003). Immigration detention can also foster migrants’ distrust in the government and receiving community (Bathily 20140).

Members of the San Antonio-based Interfaith Welcome Coalition, initially organized to help address the needs of unaccompanied minors, have focused their attention on supporting detained families in these facilities. The mostly volunteer effort of approximately 200 individuals from Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Lutheran faiths supports migrants through ministry inside the detention centers and upon release from detention.1

Sr. Susan Mika, a Benedictine Sister, has been active in IWC social justice initiatives in the San Antonio area for decades, supporting maquiladora workers, promoting socially conscious investing, and providing direct services.  She is concerned about the length of time many of the families are held in the facilities, saying that, “The government is arguing that they are there for just a short period of time, but some people were in there for over eight months. That’s not a short period of time.”

The Karnes and Dilley detention centers are difficult for many family members to visit, especially if they live outside of Texas. Many of the women and children suffer from depression after months in detention. In order to help alleviate feelings of isolation, the IWC organizes volunteers from faith communities in the San Antonio area to visit them through the Karnes Visitation Program. Since 2014, IWC has organized 50 volunteers who have made approximately 300 visits to families in the detention center.

Immigration judges set bond in some cases and release migrants who can pay it. Members of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, in partnership with the legal non-profit RAICES and other local organizations, raise funds for those families who cannot afford the bonds. “The amount the judges set for bonds were exorbitant,” Sr. Susan explains, “and they couldn’t be released until the bond was paid in full.” According to the IWC, Immigration judges at Karnes facility have set bonds for an average of $7,500–$15,000 per family. Considering that the annual income for the average Honduran is $2,190, it would take the average family three to six years of wages to secure the release of their loved ones (World Bank 2015). A year into the program, the Bond Fund has raised $319,000 to free 78 women and children. According to RAICES, many detained migrants facing violence in their home country eventually agree to a voluntary departure without help from the Bond Fund (RAICES 2015).

After ICE clears migrants for release, immigration officials transport them by van to the Greyhound station in San Antonio (Buch 2015). IWC volunteers meet the families at the station and assist them in buying bus tickets. Other volunteers help the women and children understand the details of the journey, handing out maps and explaining how long the trip will likely be. At the station, IWC volunteers also distribute backpacks filled with supplies gathered through the Welcome Home Backpack Project. In partnership with RAICES, the IWC collects donations to fill backpacks with toiletries, baby formula and diapers, blankets, food, and other necessities for their journey. Since the program started in 2014, the IWC has distributed approximately 2,000 backpacks to families arriving at the bus stations from Karnes and Dilley.

Some migrant families are stranded in San Antonio until they can make arrangements to travel to their destinations in the United States. After IWC members from the Mennonite community encountered 20 migrants at the bus station who had no place to stay for the night, the leadership of the Mennonite church offered three properties to house families and began hosting two to five families each night. The program can now accommodate up to ten families in its facilities.

Besides working in direct service, the Coalition also organizes advocacy campaigns to change immigration detention policies. They have lobbied elected officials and mobilized support for a nationwide protest in March of 2015 to draw attention to the conditions at the detention facility at Dilley. They have also launched a campaign to pressure elected officials to refuse contributions from the private corporations running the detention centers.

IWC has applauded the July 2015 ruling by federal district court Judge Dolly Gee that found that family detention in Texas violates the legal requirements of the Flores agreement. Flores requires immigration officials to hold children in “least restrictive” settings and to release them to family as soon as possible. While the Flores settlement originally applied to unaccompanied minors, Judge Gee ruled that the Texas family detention centers also violated this agreement and ordered the release of detained mothers and their children by October 23, 2015. However, the US Department of Justice has appealed this decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Ordoñez 2015; Cavaliere 2015). While they wait for the final decision on Judge Gee’s ruling, members of the IWC will continue “responding to the needs of these families in a very humane way to support basic human dignity,” says Sr. Susan.

1 Sr. Susan Mika (Benedictine Sister of the St. Scholastica Monastery), interview by Kyle Barron, August 19, 2015.


ABA (American Bar Association). July 31, 2015. “Family Immigration Detention: Why the Past Cannot Be Prologe.”

Bathily, Anne. March 15, 2015. “Immigration Detention and its Impact on Integration: A European Approach.” Knowledge for Integration Governance Project.

CCA (Correction Corporation of America). “South Texas Family Residential Center.”

GEO (The Geo Group, Inc.). “Karnes County Residential Center.”

Barajas, Michael. Houston Press. July 7, 2015. “Hundreds of Detained Immigrant Kids in Texas Accidentally Given Overdose of Hepatitis A Vaccine.”

Buch, Jason. May 23, 2015. “San Antonio Group Helps Families Released from Detention.” San Antonio Express-News.

CARA. 2015. “CARA: Family Detention Pro Bono Project.” American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Cavaliere, Victoria. Reuters. August 22, 2015. “Judge Rules U.S. Government Must Swiftly Release Immigrant Children in Detention.”

Human Rights First. June 2015. “U.S. Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One-Year Update.”

MRS/USCCB and CMS (Migration and Refugee Services/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies). 2015. “Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Immigrant Detention System.”

Ordoñez, Franco. McClatchyDC. September 18, 2015. “Feds Appeal Family Detention Ruling.”

OAS (Organization of American States). December 30, 2010. “Report on Immigration in the United States: Detention and Due Process.” Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Physicians for Human Rights and The Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. June. 20113. From Persecution to Prison: The Health Consequences of Detention for Asylum Seekers.”

RAICES. 2015. “Family Detention Bond Fund.”

USDHS (United States Department of Homeland Security). July 31, 2014. “South Texas ICE Detention Facility to House Adults with Children.”

World Bank. 2015. “World Development Indicators: Honduras.”