Fearing for her son's life and her own, Maria* fled the most violent country in the world to seek refuge with family in the United States.
In Maria's home country of Honduras, gang violence and homicides permeate daily life. According to the United Nations, Honduras had the world's highest murder rate in 2012: 90.4 murders per 100,000 people. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are among the top 10 countries with the highest rates of gender-based killings, according to the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, and rape and domestic abuse are rampant. Decades of political strife and drug-related crimes have led to turmoil in Central America, and women and children often find themselves targets, unprotected by local governments and law enforcement.
During the past year, the world watched in horror as an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children and minors, mostly from Central America, appeared at our southwestern border, fleeing gang violence and abject poverty in their home countries. Simultaneously, more than 68,000 families, mostly Central American mothers with young children also escaping gang-related threats or domestic or sexual violence, were apprehended at the border between October 2013 and September 2014.
In response to what President Barack Obama called an "urgent humanitarian crisis," the administration quickly and unapologetically re-instituted a policy that has already failed once: detaining women and their children who have suffered from violence in for-profit jail-like centers—even after they've been found to have credible claims for asylum and pose no security or flight risk. The administration's goal? To deter other refugees from making the trip.
But while the federal government argues it is acting in the name of national security, it's doing so at the expense of vulnerable women and children who have suffered great trauma, abuse and psychological damage, all of which have been found to be exacerbated by detention. On top of that, the families are caught up in a complicated, impersonal legal process that seems to be designed to keep them locked up.
Detention Policy Expands Overnight
Prior to this summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement screened and temporarily held migrant families at a smaller-scale 96-bed detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania.
Almost overnight, two larger facilities popped up near the southwest border this summer: a 700-bed center in the remote town of Artesia, New Mexico, and another in our own backyard, one hour southeast of San Antonio. The 532-bed Karnes County Residential Center is a former adult-male civil detention facility that was converted this August to house migrant women and children. Plans are underway for an even more massive family detention center in Dilley, Texas, an hour southwest of here.
The news sent shockwaves through the human rights, refugee, advocacy and legal communities, which remember fighting the deplorable conditions women and children were living in at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, north of Austin, just five years ago. For months, they have been sounding the alarm about the inherent problems of locking up women and children, and arguing against the arbitrary incarceration of vulnerable asylum-seekers.
"Warehousing women and children is wrong on several levels: it inhibits due process, it is harmful for the women and the children. It separates families and it's depriving people of their liberties unnecessarily," said Adriana Piñon, of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. Piñon has visited with families detained in South Texas. "These children and women have left their home countries where they've suffered a range of terrible realities and they've endured horrific travails en route to the United States, and once they get here, we deprive them of their liberty."
Been There, Done That. And Failed
In 2009, the Obama administration acknowledged the ills of family detention and ultimately decided to stop jailing women and children at the T. Don Hutto facility. Advocates and immigration lawyers spent years fighting to end the practice there, unearthing cases of sexual abuse, maltreatment, malnourishment of children and other inhumane practices. Just five years later, federal officials have reversed course and returned to family detention in full force.
Barbara Hines, a lawyer and professor at the University of Texas Law School and Immigration Clinic, helped lead the years-long effort to end family detention at Hutto. Now, in her pro-bono work with families detained at Karnes, she said she is seeing some of the same instances of abuse and maltreatment play out in these newer facilities.
"I was shocked," Hines said. "I couldn't believe that after the Obama administration had realized that family detention was wrong and had taken the steps five years ago to really end family detention as a policy ... that [it] took the most extreme and radical position that it could have with regard to mothers and children."
As feared, allegations of sexual abuse at Karnes are already surfacing. In early October, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the UT Immigration Law Clinic filed a complaint alleging sexual assault and abuse at the facility. According to the complaint, women allege they are being lured from their rooms by guards and personnel for sex. The complaint also alleges that guards and staff are requesting sexual favors from detained women in exchange for money or help with their immigration and asylum cases. Women also report being kissed or fondled by guards in front of other detainees, including children. Lawyers say these alleged instances and the authorities' failure to address them violate the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed by Congress in 2003.
"Guards using their respective positions of power to abuse vulnerable, traumatized women all over again is not only despicable, it's against the law," Marisa Bono, a staff attorney with MALDEF, said when the complaint was initially filed.
A second complaint was filed highlighting inadequate access to medical care, mental-health treatment, legal counsel and other resources. Hines and other attorneys who provide pro-bono representation to detained women and children say mothers are reporting that their children are losing weight and are showing signs of depression and emotional distress. Other mothers report that they are separated from their children. In one case, a mother whose baby was just learning to walk reported that she wasn't allowed to put her child on the floor and was instead forced to carry the baby, Hines said. Another mother reported to her lawyer that she wasn't able to heat up milk after 7 p.m. to feed her baby.
"You cannot humanely detain families," Hines said. "There isn't a model that works to lock up children."
Human rights advocates acknowledge that the conditions they've observed at the Karnes facility are somewhat better than those at Artesia and at T. Don Hutto. For example, rooms house eight people total, with four bunk beds, a bathroom and a vanity table. A courtyard and volleyball and basketball courts are available for families, as well as classrooms for children. Piñon, who visited Karnes with other advocates, reports that women and children aren't forced to wear uniforms like they were at Hutto and do have some free movement throughout the facility during certain hours of the day.
Still, there's no pretty way to dress up family detention. No amount of courtyards or sports areas can make incarcerating abused and traumatized women and children OK nor do recreational facilities eliminate the possibility of abuse or harassment at the centers.
"ICE has made changes from [Hutto] to Karnes, but that doesn't change the underlying concerns we have with family detention," Piñon said. "Locking people up and depriving them of their liberty has serious implications."
Inadequate medical and mental-health resources is another cause of concern. While a medical facility is open onsite at Karnes, a number of advocates and lawyers interviewed for this story, as well as instances detailed in a new report by the Women's Refugee Commission and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, say that their clients aren't receiving the care or medication that they've requested. Counseling is also available, but advocates worry women and children who have experienced domestic or sexual assault are not getting the degree of treatment that they need.
"I think what we know about domestic violence and sexual assault is women are already suffering from a sense of a lack of control in their life and privacy, and trying to reestablish a trust with society. In the detention centers, that type of trauma that they've suffered comes back in sometimes very vicious ways," said Anne Chandler, the Houston director of the Tahirih Justice Center, who organizes pro-bono legal counsel for families detained at Karnes.
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