Editor's note: The following commentary was submitted on behalf of the Bishop Morris K. Thompson, Jr., Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana; Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church; Bishop Jacob W. Owensby, Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana; the Rev. Dr. R. Timothy Jones Sr., president, Baptist Missionary and Education Convention of Louisiana; Sr. Maura O’Donovan, chair of Burning Bush: Catholic Sisters and Brothers for an End to Violence; and the Rev. Fred Kammer, executive director, Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University of New Orleans:

Because of our commitment to upholding the dignity of human life and our recognition that redemption and forgiveness are core principles of our Christian faith, we welcomed with great joy news earlier this year that the total number of persons imprisoned in Louisiana in 2018 was almost 19 percent lower than its peak in 2012. 

However, our relief and gratitude that our state has begun to reduce the number of Louisianans sent to prison soon turned to shock and disappointment when we learned that newly empty prison beds are now being used, through local agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to detain vast numbers of immigrants.

Many of these immigrants are asylum-seekers who requested refuge at our nation’s southern border, exercising rights under U.S. and international law for fair consideration of their pleas to seek protection from persecution. Others are longtime residents ensnared in ramped-up ICE enforcement efforts, including fathers and mothers arrested in August during massive worksite raids in Mississippi. Many public and private prison facilities have contracted with ICE to detain immigrants located in areas of the state distant from the love and support of detained immigrants’ families and communities as well as immigration attorneys, who are essential in assisting immigrants negotiate our nation’s daunting and complex immigration legal system.

The church has a duty and responsibility to call attention to the moral consequences of actions taken by corrections officials. By agreeing to house the growing number of immigrant detainees that has resulted from ICE’s vast expansion of immigrant detention in our state, it saddens us to say that Louisiana prison officials, public and private, may be unwitting partners in denying asylum-seekers meaningful opportunities to request asylum and contributing to the separation of hard-working immigrants from their families.

For officials in both public and private prison facilities that have contracted with ICE to detain immigrants, we pray that you recognize how the location of your facilities, far away from established immigrant communities, makes attorney and family visits extremely difficult. We ask that you please work to provide the most generous visiting hours possible for family members and attorneys, allow attorneys to make copies of legal documents at your facilities, and ensure reasonable costs for phone calls and commissary items. It is extremely important that an adequate number of trained bilingual interpreters fluent in the languages spoken by the detained immigrants be hired to facilitate communication between detention personnel and immigrants.

Officials at certain county jails on the East Coast that detain immigrants have allocated portions of the funds collected from ICE to pay for immigration legal representation. This should also be done in Louisiana. We in turn will encourage community members affiliated with our churches who live near immigrant detention centers to visit detained immigrants, helping to bring them the Word of God, friendship, and support.

We hope and pray prison officials will reconsider their involvement in detaining immigrants and instead re-focus time and talent on the noble mission of law enforcement work — to serve and protect local communities and promote the common good.