As families across Minnesota prepare for the delights and frights of Halloween, a chilling reality exists in Texas, where more than 2,000 immigrant mothers and children are in for-profit detention facilities because they dared to flee to the U.S. to escape horrific gang and domestic violence plaguing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The children in these facilities aren’t deciding whether they want to be Sofia the First or Captain America for Halloween. They are wondering whether they will be in jail for another week — or forever.
This need not be their reality much longer. In a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year, a federal judge in California, Judge Dolly Gee, ordered family detention to end. The lawsuit succeeded, because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had failed to provide basic human necessities, such as adequate food, drinking water, medical care and appropriate facilities to the children in detention.
Judge Gee’s order states that: 1) Children can no longer be held in unlicensed facilities and must be given access to adequate food, drinking water, and medical care, and, importantly, 2) since ICE has been holding immigrant children in substandard conditions since June 2014, all immigrant children — with their mothers — must be released from detention and the lockup facilities must be shut down by this Friday.
It is shocking that the simple proposition that innocent children do not belong in jail has resulted in such a pitched battle in federal court, but it has. Furthermore, there are signs that the government has an appetite for further litigation, as the Department of Homeland Security has said it intends to appeal the judge’s decision.
This week is National Week of Action to #EndFamilyDetention, designed to call attention to the human-rights abuses the U.S. government is inflicting upon children and their mothers. Events like one Wednesday at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis — grown from the grass-roots efforts of local attorneys and advocates — are being held in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Antonio and elsewhere.
Local immigration attorneys have visited these family detention facilities to provide desperately needed legal representation to mothers and their children who are young and scared. Most of the mothers have experienced sexual violence, extortion and death threats. They have seen their family members killed before their eyes. About 90 percent of the families have been found to have a credible fear of returning to their country, the first step in qualifying for asylum in the U.S.
The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit group based in Minneapolis, has launched the National Asylum Help Line to connect Central American families released from detention and seeking asylum with free immigration legal services near them so they can have a fair day in court and a chance to live in safety.
Asylum seekers should be treated like human beings when they come to our country, and until recently, they often were. Before June 2014, these mothers and children most likely would have been identified and then immediately released to family in the U.S. They would have received a court date to present their case for asylum. Many would have hired an immigration attorney or found a nonprofit organization to represent them.
Orderly, painless, inexpensive.
By contrast, we now have a system that increases the pain all around. Mothers and children are detained indefinitely in inadequate facilities in a remote location where legal access is barely available and family visitation virtually impossible. And all of this costs taxpayers millions.
It is beyond inhumane, beyond ridiculous. It is an outrage.
As immigration attorneys, we believe refugees, including the youngest and most vulnerable, have the right to seek asylum, a right that is protected under international law as well as U.S. law. But how do we treat these refugees in America, the land of the free? We jail them.
To those who would argue that these women and children are breaking the law by “entering illegally,” it is important to understand that these individuals are presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents and claiming a fear of return — as they have the legal right to do — because they are afraid they will be killed if they go home.
This most basic of human rights ensures that those who flee persecution have a chance to be heard before being deported to torture or death. By violating our internal and international obligations to process the cases of these asylum seekers in a humane and orderly fashion, we are the ones who are the true lawbreakers.
We hope that as more Americans understand the horrors that these refugee mothers and children escaped, as more learn that these vulnerable families are being held in deplorable conditions in for-profit jails run by the Corrections Corp. of America and GEO Group, as more find out how expensive it is to perpetuate this ill-conceived system of misery, they will agree with Judge Gee, and family immigration detention will end.
Kara Lynum and Michelle Rivero are Twin Cities immigration attorneys. They wrote this in cooperation with the Advocates for Human Rights.