Sacralized Public Safety and Privatized Religious Care in Immigrant Family Detention

Published 12 June 2018 / By Gregory Lee Cuéllar

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On 8 December 2017, at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference, Trump took the podium stating crassly, “thank you, Ralph, He said we got 81percent of the vote. I want to know, who are the 19 percent? Who are they? Where do they come from?” In this setting, he deployed an array of Christian references that resonated with his majority white evangelical audience. Using the Christian Bible, Trump aligned his “America first” cause with the righteous cause of the evangelical community. As he expressed, “we will not back down from doing what is right. Because, as the Bible tells us [applause]: We know that truth will prevail, that God’s glorious wisdom will shine through, and that the good and decent people of this country will get the change they voted for and that they so richly deserve.” Here, the evangelical identity of Trump’s God represents his version of authentic America. As he voiced to his supporters at a “Make America Great” rally in Pensacola, Florida, “we’ve stopped the Government’s attacks on our Judeo-Christian values, because we know that families and churches, not Government officials, know best how to create a strong and loving community.” Ultimately, the links Trump makes between the public good, conservative Christian values, and a God recognizable first-and-foremost to white evangelicals mark a form of religious nationalism that allow for public safety and its accompanying violence to be conjoined with divine will.

Public Safety’s Underling Bordering Logic

Since the days of his presidential campaign, he has identified “Mexicans” and Muslims as the primary foes of Christian America and the U.S.- Mexico border as the battlefront of national security and public safety. In typical apocalyptic fashion, Trump often describes the threat on the southern border as a scene of lawlessness where brown and black criminal alien bodies assume the form of some large poisonous blob that is pouring into the country, preying on its citizens, and polluting the public good. With the sanctity of authentic American life at stake, public safety requires a bordering logic or in Trump’s favourite words, “throwing them the hell out of our country.”

The Privatization of Religious Care and Immigrant Family Detention

Recently in 2018, CoreCivic advertised its chaplain position at its South Texas Family Residential Center. As stated in its job description, “the Chaplain coordinates all religious services and related activities at the facility and does pastoral work, including pastoral counseling” (CoreCivic 2018). In terms of credentials, ICE requires that facility chaplains have “the minimum qualifications of clinical pastoral education or equivalent specialized training, and the endorsement of the appropriate religious certifying body” (ICE 2016). Although these are the state’s minimum qualifications, the company requires many other qualifications in the hiring of detention chaplains. First the chaplain must have graduated from an accredited college or university with a Bachelor’s degree in Divinity, Theology or Religion. Second the company prefers for its chaplains to have a Master’s Degree from a Seminary, School of Theology, or University in Divinity, Theology, Biblical Studies, or a related field. In addition, CoreCivic requires five years full-time pastoral experience and be eligible for denominational endorsement or equivalent certification. In sum, the company states that the chaplain, “must demonstrate knowledge of the principles and methods of conducting religious services, teaching religious studies, administering sacraments, and practices of counseling.” (CoreCivic 2018). Apart from expanding ICE’s minimum qualifications, CoreCivic has prioritized educational requirements that mainly Christian-based schools are poised to provide. In review of its web site, the company shows a strong preference for U.S. evangelical Christianity as a source for chaplaincy care. According to a 2012 Pew Research Study, this reflect the national trend of prison chaplains in the United States. According to a survey of 730 respondents working as professional prison chaplains or religious services coordinators in state prisons, including privately run prisons that operate under state contract, about seven-in-ten identify themselves as Protestants (71%), and 44% said their denomination belongs to the evangelical Protestant tradition (Pew 2012). As Pew also indicated that a majority of the chaplains were mostly middle-aged white men and claimed to hold theologically conservative views when it came to religion. Also a majority said their social and political views are conservative. Hence for CoreCivic that benefits from Trump’s sacralized public safety, drawing on conservative evangelical clergy seems like a good business decision. In other words, for companies needing chaplains who are likely to sustain the state’s bordering logic, U.S. based evangelical clergy are ideal hires. For such chaplains possess the sort of political and theological predisposition necessary to maintain the constraints of the state on religious practices while at the same time ensure that such practices do not compromise the company’s profit margins.

The artwork Karnes County Residential Centre (Karnes City, Texas), is used with permission by Arte de Lágrimas Gallery (2016)

About the author: Gregory L. Cuéllar holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth. He holds a Master’s degree in Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Bachelor’s from Texas A&M University, Kingsville. Dr. Cuéllar is Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Gergory was also a Visiting Academic at COMPAS (Dec 17 - Jul 18).