Thousands of people pursued by despots – both big and small – flee each year to the only safe place they know – America.
There is no other route by which they’ll ever get home, if home still exists. They come in fear, but inspired by the light of freedom, only to find a system more reliant on King Herod’s philosophy than that of the Three Wise Men.
How so? The story is as old as the Epiphany. As the Wise Men head home from visiting the baby Jesus, Herod arrives on the scene, traveling the same route, following the same star that the Three Wise Men followed to Bethlehem.
We meet all of these characters – in Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth – at a crossroads. At a time of decision. Will they honor and carry the light of the world with them? Or will they snuff it out?
Unfortunately, Herod is not like the Wise Men, who are open to possibility and change. Like many in power, the king’s worldview is characterized by the need to classify and control. So at a time when the world needs it most, Herod, who experienced the same presence as the Wise Men, does not allow himself to be captivated by the light of the Christ child. In jealousy and fear, he literally attempts to snuff out the light of world, forcing the Holy Family into exile. They become refugees who fear return. The Wise Men, meanwhile, must find their way home under threat, by an alternate route.
One would imagine, centuries later, that we would not be able to draw parallels to the harrowing story of the Christ child’s infancy. But, sadly, we can.
On any given day, 34,000 people are detained in immigration detention cells across America. Many share a story as dramatic as the Wise Men’s and the Holy Family’s. To feel the full impact on the human beings who are locked up, you have to visit a detention center.
On a recent educational trip, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service hosted Lutheran leaders from across the country, visiting the Ramsey detention center in Minnesota. Ramsey is a small but critical piece of America’s immense immigrant detention industry. We asked leaders to journey with us to answer two important questions: How does this industry look, and what does it cost us?
Detainees are swept indiscriminately into Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s national network of 260 federal, private, state, and local jails, despite the fact that many are modern-day Holy Families and Wise Men– refugees, asylum seekers, or survivors of torture or human trafficking – fleeing for their lives.
There are alternatives. Programs exist that cost a fraction of the current daily price of $122 per detention bed. The LIRS report Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy maps out how the U.S. government can – and should – decrease its reliance on immigration detention by increasing its partnerships with non-profit organizations. Together, we can implement cost-effective and humane alternatives to detention programs while providing critically needed legal and social services. For less than detention’s current cost of $2 billion a year.
The stories of those in detention – many of them women separated from their children – continue to impress upon me the dire need for America to expand its alternatives to detention. And they remind me how far we’ve yet to go.
In this season of Epiphany, we are reminded that the gift of the Wise Men goes beyond their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gift of the Wise Men is an example of proclaiming light in the midst of darkness. Of making another way home. Of following stars and embracing possibility.
In this day and age, the season of Epiphany coincides with new hopes and possibilities, not least to end the suffering of people in detention, many of them fleeing today’s despots. The promise of comprehensive immigration reform is on the horizon, and within it, the chance that their suffering will be relieved by alternatives to detention. Let us all, beginning with our elected officials, come to agree on that wisdom and follow that star.
Stacy Martin is vice president for external relations and development at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service .