Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Open Letter Response to Dr. Dobson


Recently, with all the controversy about migrants being held in detention camps on the Southern Border, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame (he's no longer with the organization), visited one of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities and gave a report. 

I’ve been asked to give my opinion on his observations and conclusions, as both a Christian and an immigration lawyer.

I’m glad that Dr. Dobson took the time to visit the facility.  I’m also glad he felt compassion for those being held.  How could any decent person not?  I wish more evangelical leaders shared the same concern.  I’ll include some quotes below from his letter for convenience, but the link to the entire letter is provided here.

"The children looked traumatized and frightened. Tears flooded my eyes as I stood before them. They had no toys or dolls, except for a few items bought for them by compassionate border patrol agents. One tiny little girl clutched something that resembled a doll bought for her by an agent."

The conditions Dr. Dobson observed are direct results of government policy.  They should elicit tears of compassion.  He notes that they had no toys, except some provided by agents.  When I visited a similar facility in South Texas for women and children, the CBP and private prison forbade us to bring in even crayons for the children.  We weren’t allowed to hug or touch the children.

Make no mistake about it.  These are prison camps where women and children, who have committed no crimes, are treated like dangerous criminals.  Guards are everywhere.  We went through strict security every day.  We weren’t allowed to bring in phones, lest we document some of the embarrassing conditions.  During my volunteer week there (and many others from my office have also volunteered there at other times), I was appalled at the prison conditions applied to persons at our border seeking help.  

We documented with affidavits numerous instances of neglect of children in these private prisons.  In several cases that I was personally aware of, children were forced to wait for hours in the hot South Texas sun, waiting to see a doctor, only to be told to drink more water, even though they had had a fever for more than a week.  No medicine was dispensed.  It’s no wonder we are now seeing deaths of children in custody, although none had died in the 10 years before the Trump administration.

The recent discovery of a secret Facebook page with over 9,000 members where CBP officers, current and former, joked about deaths in custody, should give you some pause about government policy in this area.  Are you aware that some CBP agents also destroy water bottles left in the desert for migrants, which can mean the difference between life and death?

The corruption is at the top and it filters down through the agencies.  The president has been anti-immigrant from the first announcement of his candidacy and this gives license to those below inclined to mistreat immigrants or otherwise ignore the law.  We observe this at all levels of immigration policy, from the dramatically increased denials of highly skilled professional workers to the treatment of refugees and would be asylum applicants.

Much of the fault, I believe, lies in the policy of detention in private for-profit prisons, and this policy of using for-profit prisons preceded the Trump administration.  When prison officials are motivated by profit, neglect occurs.  It’s no coincidence that the stock of the largest private prisons rose overnight dramatically when Trump was elected.  It’s also no surprise that the boards of the largest private for-profit prisons (who are the recipients of no-bid government contracts) are infested with former government officials, including John Kelly, Trump’s former Chief of Staff; Richard L. Armitage, former U.S. deputy secretary of state; Michael Corbin, former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates; Michael V. Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and of the National Security Agency; Donald M. Kerr Jr., former deputy director of science and technology at the CIA; Anthony C. Zinni, former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command and former U.S. Envoy to the Middle East; and Stephen F. Loftus, former director of the Office of the Budget for the United States Navy.

This is the very definition of “the swamp” that the President has said he wants to drain.  It’s a public policy obscenity.  The no-bid contracts with the prison industry award $775 per child per day, and yet the government argues in court that it can’t afford to provide soap and toothpaste to children held in camps at 2-3 times the capacity for those facilities.  To act as if the administration is doing the best it can under difficult circumstances is, charitably, pollyannaish. 

I’m glad that you told one of the children that God loves him, and that you do too.  I believe that also.  In fact, I can point to (and you can too, I believe) many passages of scripture where God makes it clear that his heart is for immigrants and other marginalized people.  He pronounces curses on people who oppress immigrants and commands us to welcome them.  Nations are judged for the way they treat immigrants.  They are, in every way, our neighbors (whom Jesus commands us to love).

But it’s not enough to say we love them.  We should advocate for policies that treat them humanely, and sadly, I believe you have dodged this issue.  Instead, you want to attach partisan blame to Congress, Democrats, and liberals.

But it is this administration that has declared war on immigrants and especially refugees and asylum seekers.  They have initiated, for the first time ever, a policy of separation of children from their families, as a deterrent to further migration.  They are the ones who still haven’t had the will to restore family unity and didn’t even keep sufficient records to allow separated children to be returned to their families.  They are the ones responsible for numerous deaths in custody. They have drastically reduced the number of refugees we are willing to take.  They are the ones returning asylum seekers to Mexico to wait, possibly for years to have their asylum claims heard, where they aren’t safe and don’t have work permits or access to resources to help in their asylum cases.  They are the ones who have changed the very definition of asylum despite decades of judicial precedent so to eliminate virtually all legitimate asylum claims from Latin American countries.  They are the ones imposing quotas on immigration judges to remove asylum applicants more quickly.  They are the ones who tried (unsuccessfully and unconstitutionally) to say that immigrants couldn’t apply for asylum unless they entered legally, and then wouldn’t allow them to enter legally.  They are the ones imposing mandatory detention on asylum seekers.  And numerous other policy changes not mentioned here, all with the design of denying human rights to our neighbors asking for help.

Even though you want to blame Congress for not giving in to the CBP funding request, you should know that this has now happened (after your article was written).  This was done despite fears by many members of Congress that the President would try to divert money meant for immigrants to build his wall, as he has already done with other budgetary items.

I hope you also realize that there are those who believe that much of this overcrowding crisis was manufactured by CBP to get more money.  By law, the CBP is only permitted to hold children for 72 hours and then turn them over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which then can place them with relatives or hold them in safe facilities designed for children.  In violation of this, CBP continued to hold children for weeks and even months in horrible, prison camp situations, without turning them over to ORR, even though ORR has empty beds for them.  This recent crisis was about getting more money for detention (which goes to the private prison industry).

Moreover, there is no law that requires asylum seekers to be detained for months or years at a time.  This again is a policy by this administration designed to be a deterrent to further asylum seekers.  With a policy of mandatory detention (remember how the president decried “catch and release”?), the capabilities are quickly overrun and necessitating more expenditures on private prisons and policies to deny asylum seekers their human rights. 

But it does not have to be this way.  Asylum seekers can be screened and released with protections to assure their return for their hearings.  They can post reasonable bonds or have ankle bracelets.  I’m not fond of either of these, because they have a dehumanizing effect, but they are effective to assure return for asylum hearings and more compassionate than endless inhumane detention.

To approach this situation and not even acknowledge that the President’s policies are a big part of the problem is partisan and extremely naïve.

"Here’s something else you should know. I have been under the impression that these would-be immigrants try to cross the Rio Grande River and outrun or evade the agents. That is not true of most. They come in large groups, from 100 to 400 people at a time. As I write this letter, a record 1,200 people arrived together at El Paso. The refugees quickly gave themselves up to agents. That is why they have made this journey. They know they will be fed, medicated, and treated humanely, even if they are in holding areas while they are in our custody. Then they will be released on American soil."

You are correct that very few of these neighbors are from Mexico.  Most are, in fact, from three countries referred to as the “Northern Triangle,” Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  But you have really avoided the real reason they are coming.  They aren’t coming because they know they will be “fed, medicated, and treated humanely.”  In many cases, they are not even given that. 

But the real reason they are coming is the disastrous conditions in their own countries.  I wish you had explored that more instead of concluding that are coming here to get government freebies.  Over 90% of the persons arriving from those countries are determined by our government to have a “credible fear of persecution.”  This doesn’t allow them to stay permanently in the U.S. but does give them the right to have a claim for asylum heard before an immigration judge, where the difficult standard to meet is a “well founded fear of persecution.”  I wish you had heard some of women’s stories of why they left their homeland.  If you had, I think you would be convinced as I am that they are incredibly heroic in making the decision to come here to try to save their families.  Not just from poverty, but from persecution by corrupt governments and those their governments are unwilling to control, on account of their helpless condition.  But, as mentioned above, this administration is doing everything it can to limit who can qualify for that, despite our laws and international standards.

But there is something even more insidious in your suggestion as to the reasons they come.  That is, that they are a drain on society.  I think the opposite is true.  If admitted to the U.S., they will contribute to our society both economically and culturally.  Many economic studies have shown this.  Even the poorest of the poor, over time, contribute more to our society economically than they take from it.  Sadly, the administration clearly believes that every immigrant is a burden that diminishes our own happiness and is to be avoided if possible.  In a country of aging workers and low unemployment rates, that is a profoundly stupid conclusion from an economic standpoint.

"This is the system set up by a liberal Congress and judges. It is a well-known fact that President Obama’s administration established many of these unworkable policies, and Congress is steadfastly unwilling to change them. Every effort at reform has been overridden or ignored. It is set in stone. Democrats want massive numbers of immigrants who will someday become voters. Some Republicans support the policies because they want cheap labor for agricultural purposes. The border could be fixed, but there are very few in authority who seem to care."

This is where your partisanship is really showing.  You fail to assign any responsibility to an administration that, in my observation, hates immigrants.  Stephen Miller, the presidential advisor who is the architect for the President’s immigration policy, reportedly said that he would be happy if no more refugees ever set foot on American soil.  You want to blame the Obama administration (and I also have some criticisms of policy during that era), but fail to tell us what “unworkable policies” he initiated?  If anything, the Obama administration was harsher on immigrants than the previous Bush administration.

But I’m wondering what policies you don’t like?  That immigrants have the right to seek asylum?  And what immigration reform proposals has congress avoided?  The Republicans controlled both houses of congress for two years.  What reforms did they propose?  Instead, the President repeatedly sought to do by executive order what was unconstitutional.  On the other hand, the House this year has passed an immigration reform bill which the Republican controlled Senate has refused to even consider.

And the comment about “Democrats want massive numbers of immigrants who will someday become voters” is ridiculous on its face.  First, there is nothing that says that any immigrant will necessarily become a Democratic voter.  If Republicans are concerned about that demographic, why don’t they reach out to them?  Lots of immigrants are Republicans in my experience.   I’m sure you realize that persons admitted to the U.S. to seek asylum don’t have the right to vote.  Only citizens can vote and even if these asylum seekers are part of the lucky few that are given asylum, they can’t become citizens until many years later.  And by then, who knows who they will vote for?  Or do you suppose that there is something inherent in the Republican party that will not appeal to non-white voters?  I hope not.

Or are you subtlety suggesting that the immigrants admitted to seek asylum will illegally vote in large numbers?  That canard, repeatedly suggested by conservatives, has been debunked even by this administration.  So why are you assigning a corrupt motive to Democrats?  Perhaps they care about compassion and justice – ie. Christian virtues in our society? 

When you say the “border can be fixed” what do you mean?  We know the president means a wall where we don’t have to deal with the problems to our south any longer.  Although this is pure fantasy on his part, do you really think a wall will fix this humanitarian crisis, or will it just allow us to not have to see it?  I can think of many much more humanitarian, and Christian, approaches to this.  Jesus said that his opponents have neglected the “weightier matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faith.”  Where is any of that in any Republican proposals about the border?

"The would-be immigrants are taken to the center and given cursory medical exams. Then they are segregated by sex and age and placed in the fenced-in areas to be held for the next 20 days until they are processed and given a Notice to Appear. If that sounds inhumane, what would you or I do? There is simply no other place to “house” them."

What would I do?  I would determine if they have a credible fear of persecution, or other immigrant remedies, issue them a notice to appear, and release them to relatives in the U.S., with some kinds of assurances that they return for their hearings.  This can be done, as I said, with reasonable bonds and/or ankle monitors.  Studies have shown these to be effective to assure return for their hearings.  Do you find this repugnant that they can stay in the U.S. awaiting trial?  This has been our policy for many administrations before Trump.  Surely this is more humane than the current policy of indefinite detention or return to Mexico and other active measures to prevent or deter even the applications for asylum.

And yes, there are other places to “house” them in a compassionate way.  But where the fault lies is our assumption that they must be detained to await a trial before an immigration judge.  They are not criminals and shouldn’t be treated that way.

Your section on “Fake Families” is really disappointing.  You criticize the Flores decision, and yet it is that decision that says that children should be kept in safe and sanitary conditions.  Do you oppose that?

You say that a “single male typically seeks to find a child and a woman to help him ‘game the system.’”  Although there may be some anecdotal evidence of this occurring, there is no evidence that this is “typical.”  And final approval of family units would require proof of family relationship, even if they have to resort to DNA evidence.  You suggest, without evidence, that many of these are “fake families.”  Does this assuage our conscience for our failure to reunite children with their families, following an administration policy (which is still happening) of separating children from their parent as a deterrent to further immigration?  Oh well, probably a lot of those are “fake families”?

"These people are given a court case and released. The vast majority are never seen again. Most then become “anchor babies” who are citizens with rights to bring members of their families. Others are given transportation to an American city where they disappear into the culture."

That the “vast majority are never seen again” is flatly false by any measure of statistics.  Not sure what your source is, but the Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 23% didn’t show up over a five-year period.  Not great, but also not a “vast majority.”  For those seeking asylum, only about 10% were no shows, according to the DOJ. 

There is much in your paragraph above which is simply nonsensical.  Any comment that uses the term “anchor babies” displays a real ignorance of the law and is used to poison the discussion.  You are using that term, but I don’t think you know what it means.  First, any child admitted to the U.S. at the border does not qualify as an “anchor baby,” because, by definition, they are not born here.  But babies that are born here are not “anchoring” anything.  It is true, they are U.S. citizens in the same way that you became a U.S. citizen by being born here (consistent with the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution), but that doesn’t prevent their parents from being deported.  Parents of U.S. citizens are being deported every single day in this country.  Children born here cannot even petition for parents to come to the U.S. until they turn 21, and even then, the parents may have accrued bars to legally coming to the U.S.  Hardly an anchor, but the terms serves to rile up conservatives, which I assume was your point in using it.

"In addition to this influx of people from places around the world steeped in poverty and despair, Senator Chuck Schumer authored and helped pass a “lottery” system, whereby winners are brought to the United States. They become permanent residents, who then begin bringing their families to our shores. Thank you, Senator." 

I know members of Congress often rail against the “green card lottery” and want to eliminate it, but I’m not sure what the problem is?  I know many persons who have benefitted from this program and they are wonderful people who provide much economic and cultural benefit to the U.S.  The program was conceived as a way of bringing diversity to the U.S., so only certain countries qualify for the program.  Do you find diversity threatening?  I’m not sure what the problem is.  Is there evidence that diversity winners are more likely to be criminals (they undergo background checks), or more likely to go on welfare?  The answer to both is “no.”

And why are you targeting Chuck Schumer, other than the fact that he’s a Democrat?  The diversity program was approved by Congress with bipartisan support and signed by George H.W. Bush.  The kingdom of heaven will be composed of people from “every tribe and tongue.”  The U.S. isn’t the kingdom of heaven, but I don’t see any reason why we should fear diversity.  It’s one of the strengths of our nation of immigrants.

And as far as “bringing their families to our shores,” I’m not sure what the problem there is either.  I know it is raising the specter of “chain migration,” but understand that someone who comes on this program isn’t eligible for citizenship for five years, and after that, it may take many more years or decades to bring immediate relatives, such as parents, adult children, or siblings to the U.S.  The principle in our law that supports this is called “family unity.”   Surely you support families getting to stay together?

"Ten years ago, 90 percent of illegals apprehended at the border were single males, mainly from Mexico. Now, more than 50 percent show up with babies and children, and 90 percent of them are from countries other than Mexico, with 64 percent being family units or unaccompanied alien children. Together, they claim to be “families” and within three weeks, they will be home free in America. Is there any doubt why there have been more than half a million illegal immigrants this year alone?"

Please don’t use the word “illegal.”  It is pejorative and dehumanizing.  The fact that now most at the border are with babies and children doesn’t mean that there is more fraud going on, as you suggest.  It means that conditions in their countries are so bad that it’s women and children who are most vulnerable and are fleeing for their lives.  They are “families” and they aren’t “home free” in America in three weeks.  The surge in migrants fleeing Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have to do with the conditions in those countries.  These conditions are well documented through the UNHCR and other human rights organizations, but you seem to think that the real reason is to take advantage of the U.S. and take something you think belongs solely to you.

Lastly, you have your homage to the CBP.

"They obviously care about the detainees, and I respect them highly. They work tirelessly feeding people three times a day and providing clean clothing. They must also maintain the portable toilets in the cells. It is a never-ending task. There are only two large showers in the facility, one for males, the other for females. Their capacity is for only 20 people at a time, which is insufficient."

While I do know that many CBP officers are in fact compassionate and conflicted about their jobs, we, as a nation, are falling short in our care for our neighbors.  Have you heard about the other recent visits to the facilities, other than your own?  Where CBP officers are asking other children to care for the younger children?  Where diapers aren’t changed?  Where diseases are spreading and children have died?  Let’s not try to whitewash the situation.  Law enforcement deserves our praise, but also deserves our accountability.  There are extremely high rates of turnover in this agency (as well as ICE), and I believe part of the reason is that they are conflicted.  There is an injustice about much of what they have to do to uphold the law.  Why don’t you look at the for-profit prison industry when you look at the conditions in the prisons?  Can they provide better care for the $775 per child per day they receive, or does their profit margin forbid it?  Greed, as you know, is a sin.

Your suggestion that CBP agents are so consumed with caring for refugees that the borders are neglected is way off base.  Most contraband, including drugs, comes through guarded ports of entry.  There is no suggestion that these have been left unmanned to care for detained asylum applicants.  Proposals have been floated in Congress to increase protections at the border points of entry but have been rejected by the administration in favor of funding for a vanity wall.

I agree with you that our agents deserve our prayers.  They also need to be accountable to justice and bad agents should be removed.  The Facebook page referred to above and recently discovered is inexcusable and anyone associated with that or abuse of immigrants should be fired.  Good agents should be rewarded but I’m not going to whitewash abuse simply because they are involved in law enforcement.  Again, much of the blame for abuse, in my mind, falls on the administration, which has encouraged this in the same way it has encouraged torture and turned the other way when subordinates act accordingly.

You conclude with a plea for the “overhaul of the law.”  I would like more specifics on what overhaul you would like to see?  I’m afraid that is revealed in the rest of your paragraph.

"I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation.

America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. But in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen."

Sadly, your real feelings about immigration are revealed here.  You, like generations before you, worry about illiteracy and violent criminals with no marketable skills and “overwhelming our culture” and “bankrupting the nation.”  This is hogwash.  Our immigration system screens for criminal aliens, and immigrants as a whole are much less likely to be criminal than native born.  Economically, we need immigrants to be a great nation, and it is immigration in large part, that has made this a great nation.  Even the poorest unskilled immigrants add value to our economy over time.  To think that the few immigrants we admit each year have the potential to bankrupt the nation is ridiculous fear mongering. 

What I am seeing is a fear that you think immigrants will take something that you believe you are entitled to.  Even if this is true, and I think it is not, can you honestly say that this is what Jesus would do?

I hope as a Christian you will see that a true focus on family has to be more than just U.S. families.  If the U.S. family focusses only on itself and its own needs, it will not be blessed.  I hope my comments are not perceived as too critical of you personally, but frankly, I think your response to this crisis is more about partisan politics than about Christian ethics.  As a fellow believer, I think if all we have to offer in this crisis is a wall, we are lost.

Thanks for letting me set the record straight.


  1. This: "do you really think a wall will fix this humanitarian crisis, or will it just allow us to not have to see it?" 👏👏👏 Well done, Roger

  2. Thanks, Mr. McCrummen, for speaking Evangelical truth to the evangelical power Jim Dobson represents in our larger Christian community. Being a retired psychotherapist and pastor, I can call only cringe these days when the Dobsons, Falwells, Grahams and others speak of their Trumpian fears of the "others" much as the Chief Priests and Pharisees feared them throughout the Gospels. You are doing the work of Jesus, Mr. McCrummen! Keep up the good work with all of us who strive to live within His love until all such worldly, irrational, and yes ..political....fears can be cast out with their own Father of lies.

  3. Thank you so much for this letter. Like you I was shocked at this hateful letter from James Dobson.