As families across Minnesota prepare for the delights and frights of Halloween, a separate, hidden, and 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 America to escape the 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 does not need to be their reality for much longer. In a class action lawsuit filed earlier this year, California Federal Court Judge Dolly Gee ordered family detention to end. This lawsuit was filed and 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 immigrant 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 proper medical care, and importantly, 2) since ICE has been holding immigrant children in sub-standard conditions since June 2014, all immigrant children―with their mothers―must be released from detention and the lock-up facilities must be shut down by October 23, 2015.
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 the appetite for further litigation, as the Department of Homeland Security has stated that it intends to appeal Judge Gee’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 the one held yesterday at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis—grown from grass roots efforts of local attorneys and advocates―are being held in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Antonio, and throughout the country.
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 murdered before their eyes. A significant number of the children have the same sad history. 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 United States.
The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit 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 United States. They would have received a court date to appear in immigration court to present their case for asylum. Many would have hired an immigration attorney or found a nonprofit organization to represent them in their cases. Orderly, painless, inexpensive.
By contrast, we now have a system that increases the pain all around. Mothers and children are detained indefinitely in a remote location where legal access is barely available and family visitation virtually impossible. Families are jailed in for-profit detention facilities that value profits over providing a basic level of care to children. And all of this costs taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars.
It is beyond inhumane, beyond ridiculous. It is an outrage.
As immigration attorneys, we believe and know that refugees, including the youngest and most vulnerable, have the right to seek asylum, a right that is protected under international law as well as United States laws. 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 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 these refugee mothers and children escaped, as more Americans learn that these vulnerable families are being held in deplorable conditions in for-profit jails run by the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, as more Americans find out how expensive it is to perpetuate this ill-conceived system of misery, they will agree with Judge Gee, and hopefully, family immigration detention will end.
By: Twin Cities’ immigration attorneys Kara Lynum and Michelle Rivero, and The Advocates for Human Rights.
Note: This blog post was published in the Star Tribune‘s editorial section on October 22, 2015.