Let’s jail the children and call it child care

Child from Honduras

Texas, leading the nation as always, granted a child care license to a jail on April 29. It’s a special, private jail, an immigration detention center in Karnes City run by the private, for-profit GEO Group. The Texas license comes in response to a federal judge’s order that migrant children must be released from detention centers because it’s against the law to hold kids in unlicensed facilities. (A few days after the license was issues, a Texas judge blocked, at least temporarily, a second license for another immigration jail and set a hearing on the licenses for May 13.)

Testimony offered last year by a social worker who quit working at the Karnes detention center gives some idea of why it’s a bad place for children (and their mothers). The Los Angeles Times reported:

“López, whose story began emerging this week ahead of Tuesday’s forum, said her work at the detention center forced her to do things that as a social worker she regarded as unethical.

“In some cases, she said, the company told her to omit some information from the immigrants’ files, including complaints about medical conditions, such as a woman with recurrent headaches who had a family history of brain aneurysms. …

“She said she saw a 5-year-old Central American girl, who had been raped and physically abused during the journey, lose weight at the detention center and start wearing diapers.

“When she reported the girl’s conditions to her boss, a psychologist, she said he discharged the girl with a note saying she was sleeping and eating better. “When López submitted a note in response reiterating that the girl had lost weight, another supervisor told her she was mistaken. ‘I can discern an increase and a decrease’ in weight, López said.

“When dozens of women at the detention center staged a hunger strike this spring, several of the leaders reported being placed in isolation in the medical unit with their children, an allegation López corroborated.”

(For more description of conditions at Karnes and other detention centers, see this MSNBC report and this News Day post on hunger strikes in for-profit immigration prisons and this report from the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and this article from the Texas Observer.

The U.S. is jailing more children and families now than a year ago, with the number seized at the border more than doubled in the past year. During the first half of FY2016, which began on October 1 2015, some 32,117 family members were detained at the border. In addition, 27754 unaccompanied children were detained – also a big increase over last year, according to Pew Research Center. Mexican migrant apprehensions have dropped to their lowest level since 1969. The vast majority of family members and unaccompanied children apprehended at the border come from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

As the New York Times editorialized in April:

“Those three countries are among the most violent corners of our hemisphere. El Salvador is the world’s murder capital. Honduras and Guatemala are not far behind. All are plagued by an epidemic of killings of women and children — by gang and drug warfare and by political oppression. The United States remains a rich and stable neighbor, more than capable of helping to stabilize the region and of welcoming and protecting the desperate people who have fled by the thousands to the Texas border.”

Other, cheaper, more humane solutions exist. Releasing families to await hearings, even with ankle monitors, would be far cheaper than imprisonment. Except that the government has contracts with Geo Croup and Corrections Corporation of America — the two giant for-profit prison companies — to fill the beds with prisoners.

In two reports issued May 5, the Center for American Progress lays out short-term and medium to long-term plans to address the Central American refugee situation. Among the short-term actions:

  • “As soon as possible following apprehension, each person should receive a “know your rights” presentation by a qualified nongovernmental organization, or NGO.
  • “The U.S. government must ensure that the protections for unaccompanied children in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, or TVPRA, remain intact.
  • “Every immigration agency dealing with children—from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office of Immigration Review to the Office of Refugee Resettlement—should adopt the ‘best interest of the child’ principle in all aspects of care—from apprehension, shelter, and release to immigration proceedings.”

The report goes on to detail specific steps, including closing the Karnes and Dilley detention centers and ending so-called “rocket dockets” that rush children and families to deportation.

The report on medium and long-term solutions includes discussion of “run-away levels of crime and violence,” including high rates of femicide, which are driving the refugees from Central America. In the medium term, the report recommends specific steps to protect refugees and aid resettlement. In the long term, the report says:

“The United States must recognize that fundamental change across the Northern Triangle requires buy-in from regional governments, elites, and societies and should use all available policy and diplomatic tools in order to encourage these groups to focus on meaningful change that promotes citizen security and sustainable economic development.”

Specific recommendations begin with establishing “accountability and the rule of law” in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

None of these solutions are easy. The easy solution is to license jails as child care centers, and to continue filling them with mothers and children.

By: Guest blogger Mary Turck, a freelance writer and editor who teaches writing and journalism at Metropolitan State University and Macalester College. She is the former editor of the TC Daily Planet and of the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, a recovering attorney, and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues. 

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