By Mike Lillis - 09/07/15 10:30 AM EDT
Immigration reformers on and off of Capitol Hill are hoping Pope Francis's visit to Washington this month will serve as a catalyst for ending immigrant detentions.
The Obama administration has stirred a whirlwind of criticism for expanding its detention of illegal immigrant families in response to last summer's migrant surge — a policy many Democrats and human rights advocates have condemned as harmful to the health of the women and children being held.
The pope, who is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24, has long-fought for migrant rights around the globe. The reform advocates are hoping not only that he brings that message to Washington, but that the administration responds by closing the facilities down.
"You can't find a greater moral authority than the pope," said Olga Byrne, who specializes in refugee protection for Human Rights First, an advocacy group pushing to end the detentions. "The White House has flexibility in how they shape their policies. They opened these facilities and they could just as easily shut them down tomorrow."
To highlight the issue, a group of immigrant rights activists is launching a nine-day "pilgrimage" from a Pennsylvania detention center to welcome the pope in Washington. Organized by We Belong Together, a group of female activists, the campaign will feature 100 women walking 100 miles to advocate for policies that keep families together.
"We're walking from a site of human degradation that we hope to transform with human dignity," Juana Flores, a co-director of San Francisco's Mujeres Unidas y Activas group who will participate in the walk, said in an email.
Democrats critical of Obama's detention policies are also eying ways to use the pope's visit to press the administration for reforms, though their strategy remains unclear, according to several advocates.
The critics will have a sympathetic audience in Pope Francis, an Argentinian-Italian who's made immigrant rights a priority of his tenure atop the Catholic Church. Indeed, the pope's first visit outside of Rome, in July 2013, was to the Lampedusa, a small island off of Italy's coast where thousands of migrants fleeing Africa in recent years have landed — or perished en route.
He's also pressed European governments to do more to rescue migrants crossing into the continent; he called last summer for an "urgent intervention" to protect those fleeing violence in Central America; and he plans to address the immigration issue on at least two stops of this month's U.S. visit, one in Philadelphia and another in New York.
"His history has been to be outspoken on the immigration issue — it's one of the central issues of his papacy," Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Thursday. "The question is not whether he'll say something, but how specific he'll get [in addressing U.S. policy]."
The detention center debate has swirled since last summer when tens of thousands of Central American migrants — many of them women and unaccompanied children — crossed into the United States. The deluge quickly swamped the border authorities, who scrambled for ways to detain, process and, in many cases, deport the families back to their homes.
The Homeland Security Department (DHS) responded by establishing several new family detention centers, the largest being two facilities in Texas that hold nearly 3,000 people combined.
Critics of the centers, including a long list of congressional Democrats, contend the facilities are not only illegal but inhumane, posing psychological and other health risks for the thousands of women and children being held for processing.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has acknowledged shortcomings in the process, launching a series of reforms that aim to improve conditions and transition the facilities into short-term processing centers. But those changes have done little to appease the Democrats and human rights activists, who want the administration to close the facilities immediately and release the detainees to family or other less stringent environments.
Those critics won a huge victory in June, when a federal judge in California found that the centers violated a previous agreement involving the treatment of illegal immigrant kids and ordered them closed. The administration asked the judge to reverse that decision, arguing that closing the centers would undermine the government's efforts to process current detainees, discourage future migrants and secure the border — arguments the judge has since rejected.
It remains unclear if DHS will appeal the most recent ruling, but the advocates aren't taking any chances. They see the pope's visit as both an opportunity to prompt the administration to accept the decision and a counterbalance to the conservative immigration rhetoric that's dominated much of the presidential primary debate.
“At a time when the conversation about immigrants has been so hateful, the pope’s words have been a balm for us," Alejandra Saucedo, a member of Florida's Dreamers Moms group who will walk to D.C. this month, said in an email.
"We need leaders to hear the call to recognize the contributions and dignity of those who come here for a better life."