Frontera Fund News

“The worst possible scenario”: Jailing Kids

Photo credit: US Customs and Border Protection

At newly built detention centers, lawyers are racing to help thousands of mothers and children before they’re deported to deadly situations.

UPDATE: Members of Congress call for end of family detention. See NEWS, below.

On Mother’s Day, two moms – Karen Lucas and Beth Werlin – visited mothers and children locked in the largest immigration detention center in the U.S.

Behind a high fence, they saw converted barracks packed with up to 12 people per room. They spoke with traumatized mothers whose sick babies weren’t receiving medicine. They also saw playgrounds, soccer fields, and schools.

All in all, the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley was a vast improvement over the now-shuttered family detention facilities of a few years ago.

At those glorified jails, kids and moms wore prison scrubs, pregnant women were denied adequate prenatal care and food, and children were given one hour of schooling per day. Guards threatened to separate families for minor infractions (showering in the morning instead of the afternoon, talking in their cells during the headcount). And kids were forced to listen to their parents speak with lawyers about horrific atrocities that made them flee their home countries.

Still, the Dilley facility, and its sister institution in Karnes, Texas, are not “residential centers.”

“Even under the best of circumstances,” says Wendy Feliz of the American Immigration Council, “it’s jail.”

But unlike in jails, detainees here are not entitled to free legal representation.

That’s where Lucas and Werlin come in. They represent the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council, respectively. Those groups recently joined forces with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and legal nonprofit RAICES to form the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.

Now, CARA volunteers are meeting with as many women as possible to help them bushwhack through the jargon-thick jungle of refugee law. It’s a race against time.

One woman was granted asylum after gang members murdered her brother, shot her husband and kidnapped and raped her 14-year-old stepdaughter.

Let’s get one thing clear. A large segment of the American population refers to these families as “criminals invading our country” who should be immediately sent home to “teach them a lesson.”

The truth is nearly all the families in detention centers are seeking asylum, and about 88 percent demonstrate a credible fear of returning to their home country.

There are two ways of applying for asylum in this country, and both require refugees to be physically present in the United States, according to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. So by coming to the country and asking for asylum, these families are pursuing the only path laid out for them.

This is not criminal behavior. It is the desperate attempt of mothers to save their children, often from violent countries where gangs effectively rule the poorest neighborhoods, rural communities, the police, and the government.

One woman was granted asylum after gang members murdered her brother, shot her husband, and kidnapped and raped her 14-year-old stepdaughter.

Another mother was fleeing her severely abusive husband, who threatened to chop off her head with a machete if she didn’t drink poison, then kidnapped one of their daughters at knifepoint.

After a Guatemalan woman’s family became involved in a religious nonviolence movement, gang members forced her husband into hiding, repeatedly raped her and threatened to slice her unborn baby out of her womb.

What “lesson” do these women need to be taught?

Despite enduring these horrors, officials lock these families up, subjecting them to even more trauma. “They’re treating them like prisoners rather than like refugees and asylees,” Feliz says. “It’s the worst possible scenario that it could be.”

And it’s not even necessary, as we reported last week in 5 Reasons to End Immigration Detention (And 5 Alternative Solutions).

Oftentimes women have only a few days to make their appeal and aren’t able to consult a lawyer before they’re deported. Many deported families face even more danger upon their return. After a group of 79 people at the Artesia, New Mexico detention center was deported to El Salvador, a church group reported that 10 of those children were murdered.

Despite criticism over conditions and lack of legal access, family detention continues to expand.

The Dilley center currently detains nearly 800 parents and children. Construction will be completed soon that will increase the capacity to 2,400. The center in Karnes has 532 beds and plans to double that number.

Meanwhile, the CARA lawyers are helping as many families as they can. But, Feliz says, “It’s an uphill climb.”

NEWS: On May 27, 2015, 136 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson calling for an end to family detention:

“We believe it is undeniable that detention in a secure facility is detrimental to mothers and children and is not reflective of our values as a Nation. Children require special protections and should not be placed in jail-like settings. We are particularly troubled by the current practice of family detention because the detained population is largely comprised of refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries… Detaining children who have already been victims of abuse exacerbates past trauma…”

Then on June 1, 33 senators sent a letter to Secretary Johnson:

“[T]he prolonged detention of asylum-seeking mothers and children who pose no flight risk or danger to the community is unacceptable and goes against our most fundamental values… Treating these victims like criminals is wrong… We urge you to end the practice of presumptive detention of families and return to the policy of utilizing detention only as a last resort…”