Opinion

Family Detention for Central American Refugees Is Inhumane

Our government’s response so far to the border crisis has been an international embarrassment.

Wendy Cervantes serves as the vice president of Immigration and Child Rights Policy at First Focus, a national bipartisan children's advocacy organization. 
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Wendy Cervantes And Madhuri Grewal
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Wendy Cervantes and Madhuri Grewal
Sept. 16, 2014, 7:13 a.m.

“Ay­uda! (“Help!”) This was the last word we heard a young boy shout as we left the Artesia Fam­ily De­ten­tion Fa­cil­ity in New Mex­ico.

Artesia is the first fa­cil­ity cre­ated as a part of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s swift, large-scale ex­pan­sion of fam­ily de­ten­tion fa­cil­it­ies, used to hold wo­men and young chil­dren ar­riv­ing at the bor­der. We toured Artesia this sum­mer with a group of non­gov­ern­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions and hu­man-rights ad­voc­ates. In­stead of refugee as­sist­ance, we saw tod­dlers fenced in­side a hot fa­cil­ity in the middle of a desert, moth­ers without know­ledge of their ba­sic leg­al rights, and chil­dren rap­idly los­ing weight due to mal­nu­tri­tion, anxi­ety, and de­pres­sion. As ad­voc­ates for chil­dren and im­mig­rants, we left the tour con­vinced that our gov­ern­ment’s blind eye to the mass de­ten­tion of mi­grant fam­il­ies will be­come a dark peri­od in our his­tory books.

The wo­men and chil­dren de­tained at Artesia made the in­cred­ibly gruel­ing and dan­ger­ous jour­ney to the United States to seek refuge from vi­ol­ence and dis­place­ment in their home coun­tries. In or­der to “deal with” these fam­il­ies, Pres­id­ent Obama re­ques­ted $3.7 bil­lion from Con­gress. That fig­ure in­cludes fund­ing to rap­idly ex­pand Im­mig­ra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment’s fam­ily de­ten­tion ca­pa­city from few­er than 100 beds to 6,350.

It’s worth not­ing that ICE already holds 34,000 im­mig­rants every day in a sprawl­ing sys­tem of more than 250 im­mig­ra­tion de­ten­tion fa­cil­it­ies, cost­ing tax­pay­ers nearly $2 bil­lion each year. Sup­ple­ment­al spend­ing bills to ad­dress the cur­rent bor­der crisis were also in­tro­duced in the Sen­ate (S 2648) and the House (HR 5230), both of which in­cluded fund­ing to ex­pand fam­ily de­ten­tion. To date, none of these budget re­quests have been ap­proved. While HR 5230 passed in the House on the even­ing of Aug. 1, Sen­ate lead­er­ship has made it clear that there are no plans to take up the bill. Even without ad­di­tion­al re­sources, it is also clear that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is mov­ing for­ward with its plan to de­tain more fam­il­ies.

This is deeply troub­ling be­cause what we saw at Artesia was dis­turb­ing. Feel­ings of anxi­ety were run­ning high, primar­ily be­cause nearly every­one we spoke to—from ICE of­ficers to the de­tained moth­ers—had no clear sense of what was hap­pen­ing. The fa­cil­ity is a former fed­er­al law-en­force­ment train­ing cen­ter hast­ily con­ver­ted in­to make­shift liv­ing quar­ters. Al­though we ar­rived in late Ju­ly, nearly a month after ICE began de­tain­ing fam­il­ies at the fa­cil­ity, it was clear that Artesia was still un­der con­struc­tion. Leg­al in­form­a­tion and at­tor­ney lists were still be­ing pos­ted and trans­lated in­to Span­ish. Ex­perts hired to of­fer ba­sic in­form­a­tion about U.S. im­mig­ra­tion and refugee law were only just ar­riv­ing. Artesia is also at least four hours from an ex­ist­ing net­work of leg­al or so­cial ser­vices in Al­buquerque or El Paso. Three planes of wo­men and chil­dren had already been de­por­ted by the time we ar­rived. And it was clear many wo­men held at the fa­cil­ity were not aware of their rights to claim asylum nor giv­en ac­cess to law­yers.

The av­er­age age of the chil­dren held in­side Artesia is just 6 and a half. As we toured the fa­cil­ity, we saw many of them. We saw ba­bies in di­apers tot­ter­ing around the fa­cil­ity’s dirt paths and ex­hausted young chil­dren and moth­ers wait­ing in line for lunch in the swel­ter­ing heat. We saw two boys, about 7 years old, walk­ing with a trash can, pick­ing up garbage and dirty di­apers off the floor. Every moth­er we spoke with ex­pressed con­cern that their chil­dren were suf­fer­ing from di­et­ary prob­lems due to mal­nu­tri­tion and de­pres­sion, in­clud­ing diarrhea, loss of ap­pet­ite, and/or severe weight loss.

Per­haps most frus­trat­ing is that this ad­min­is­tra­tion knows that fam­il­ies should not be de­tained. From 2006-2009, the gov­ern­ment held fam­il­ies at the T. Don Hutto De­ten­tion Cen­ter, a former pris­on in Texas. Re­ports emerged that tod­dlers at Hutto wore pris­on uni­forms and jump­suits, fam­il­ies lived in locked pris­on cells, and moth­ers and chil­dren were threatened with fam­ily sep­ar­a­tion if chil­dren cried or played too loudly. Me­dia and im­mig­rant-rights ad­voc­ates also called at­ten­tion to stud­ies on fam­ily de­ten­tion demon­strat­ing that the things hap­pen­ing at Hutto were fore­see­able.

These stud­ies show that in­sti­tu­tion­al con­fine­ment and a par­ent’s lim­ited power have ad­verse ef­fects not just on the child, but also on the par­ent-child re­la­tion­ship. In cus­tody, both par­ents and chil­dren fre­quently come to view staff as the ones who have con­trol in these set­tings, cre­at­ing a dy­nam­ic where frightened par­ents feel they no longer have au­thor­ity. Law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials will of­ten go so far as to dis­cip­line chil­dren for be­hav­ing like kids. When these prob­lems be­came pub­lic at Hutto, the fa­cil­ity quickly be­came a na­tion­al em­bar­rass­ment and ICE ended the prac­tice of de­tain­ing fam­il­ies there in 2009.

Im­mig­rant and hu­man-rights ad­voc­ates breathed a sigh of re­lief. We as­sumed the ad­min­is­tra­tion had learned that fam­ily de­ten­tion is simply too in­hu­mane an op­tion.

Yet, this sum­mer, our gov­ern­ment has moved in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion, open­ing fa­cil­it­ies such as Artesia. ICE now op­er­ates fa­cil­it­ies with more than 1,400 beds for fam­ily de­ten­tion. And they con­tin­ue to ex­pand. Karnes County De­ten­tion Cen­ter in Texas, a fa­cil­ity op­er­ated by the private pris­on cor­por­a­tion GEO Group, has been con­ver­ted in­to a fam­ily de­ten­tion cen­ter. It began hold­ing fam­il­ies in early Au­gust. Re­cent news re­ports re­veal plans to open a massive 2,400-bed fam­ily de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity in Dilley, Texas. We are alarmed by the pres­id­ent’s hur­ried ex­pan­sion of fam­ily de­ten­tion and rap­id de­port­a­tions with ut­ter dis­reg­ard to due pro­cess. We are also deeply con­cerned at the si­lence of Con­gress while the ad­min­is­tra­tion ramps up its de­ten­tion of fam­il­ies with chil­dren.

Our coun­try is in the midst of an ex­traordin­ary refugee crisis and the U.S. will be judged by how we handle it. So far, our gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse has been an in­ter­na­tion­al em­bar­rass­ment. Coun­tries like Le­ban­on, which have a frac­tion of our re­sources, provide refugee as­sist­ance and status to more than three times the num­ber of asylum seekers who enter their coun­try com­pared with the U.S. In con­trast, our gov­ern­ment has des­cen­ded down a shame­ful path of lock­ing up tod­dlers and moth­ers.

There are more hu­mane and less costly op­tions. The gov­ern­ment can shift funds away from mass de­ten­tion to refugee-as­sist­ance pro­grams that en­able par­ents to care for their chil­dren in a home set­ting with ac­cess to crit­ic­al med­ic­al, leg­al, and so­cial ser­vices.

We urge the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Con­gress to stop the in­hu­mane and rap­id ex­pan­sion of fam­ily de­ten­tion and de­port­a­tions and show com­pas­sion to vul­ner­able refugee chil­dren and fam­il­ies ar­riv­ing at our bor­der.

Wendy Cer­vantes serves as the vice pres­id­ent of im­mig­ra­tion and child-rights policy at First Fo­cus, a na­tion­al bi­par­tis­an chil­dren’s ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion. Madhuri Gre­w­al is policy coun­sel at the De­ten­tion Watch Net­work, a na­tion­al co­ali­tion of or­gan­iz­a­tions and in­di­vidu­als work­ing to ex­pose and chal­lenge the in­justices of the U.S. im­mig­ra­tion de­ten­tion and de­port­a­tion sys­tem.

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