Presbyterian Disaster Assistance shines light on immigration detention in new documentary


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.


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