Choosing Detention Over Death

Families fleeing violence in Central America get a cold welcome from the U.S.

A woman displays her ankle monitor. (Photos courtesy of Raices)

In August 2014, "M," a 27-year-old Guate­malan woman, decided to come to the U.S. with her 9-year-old son to escape the injustice and violence of her home country.

M, who agreed to speak with the Chronicle on the condition of anonymity, has lived a life dominated by violent male figures. She grew up in a small town in Guatemala, enduring her father's beatings on a regular basis. "He sometimes would undress us and beat us up," she said. (M does not speak English; her interview was conducted using an interpreter provided by the Chronicle.) Once, she called the police to report her father's violence against her mother, but an officer told her, "Your mother must not be obeying your father."

Yet fear of domestic violence was not enough to make M decide to come to the U.S. When she was still a teenager, M was raped and became pregnant as a result. Her father told her to marry her rapist or abort the child; she refused to do either. She decided instead to escape her father by moving to Guatemala City. But she was unable to escape her past. The father of the man who raped her discovered that he had a grandchild, and decided that he should have custody of him, telling M, "I should raise my grandson because a woman does not know how to raise a child."

M had no desire to give up custody of her son, and she especially did not want him involved with his grandfather, who had murdered his own wife. "I did not want my son to grow up to be a bad person." When M refused to give up her son, his grandfather threatened to kill her. She felt she had no choice but to flee to the U.S. in search of asylum.

M, like so many other immigrants and refugees, was apprehended by Customs & Border Protection (CBP) as she attempted to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. She stayed at a short-term detention facility run by CBP while waiting to be moved into a family detention center. The CBP facilities are notorious for being too cold (they're often called hieleras, Spanish for "iceboxes") with limited to no medical services. M recalled that the CBP facility where she was held was so overcrowded that some people had to sleep in the bathroom. Detainees were given two cold burritos a day. It was clear that M and her son were unwelcome in the U.S. "You have no right to be here," a Border Patrol agent told her.

After three days, M and her son were moved to the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, where women and children, although they have been charged with no crime, remain in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The initial step in the lengthy asylum process people requesting refugee status go through is the "credible fear interview," which takes place in the detention center. The CFI, administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers, determines if a refugee faces a grave threat upon returning home. If a woman receives a positive CFI determination, she and her children may be eligible for release from detention. If the mother receives a negative determination, they face deportation.

Despite the high passage rate of the CFI, there are families that slip through cracks, said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. "The CFI is a single conversation women have with a stranger about the worst things they experienced in their lives, which is done through a limited set of questions in a machinelike tone." In addition, the quality of the interview depends on the quality of Spanish translation, which varies, Ryan explained.

With the help of an attorney working pro bono, M was able to have a positive determination after appealing her first CFI result. During her first interview, M was not able to understand the questions asked. Like many indigenous migrants from Central America, Spanish is M's second language, and the questions were asked at a pace she could not keep up with.

After overcoming the CFI hurdle, M was not able to overcome the next one: She did not have enough money to pay the $10,000 bond to be quickly released from detention; instead she and her son would spend 11 months at Karnes.

Detaining Refugees for Profit

The Obama administration ended the practice of family detention almost entirely in 2009 due to public pressure and lawsuits alleging human rights violations (one center remained open in Pennsylvania; it had fewer than 100 beds). However, due to the surge of Central American families and unaccompanied minors who came to the U.S. border seeking refuge last year, the administration resumed family detention.

The first new family detention center was opened in Artesia, New Mexico, in June 2014, but was closed by the end of the year. In south Texas, the 532-bed facility in Karnes City was authorized to become a family detention center, and a new 2,400-bed facility was opened in Dilley. Both are run by for-profit companies: the GEO Group, Inc., and Corrections Corporation of America, respectively.

Similar to M, most women from Central America in the Karnes and Dilley centers have experienced traumatic events at home. This year, a team of experts in mental and behavioral health from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) interviewed women and children who had been held in detention centers, publishing their results in a report titled "No Safe Haven Here." All the women interviewed described "traumas" as the triggering events that made them come to the U.S. "Many women had been extorted by gangs – and when they could no longer pay, gang members threatened to kill them, their children, or other family members," the authors of the UUSC report wrote.

A mother and child released from detention wait for a Greyhound bus in San Antonio.

Family detention centers are in themselves a violation of international human rights law, says Denise Gilman, director of the UT-Austin School of Law's Immigration Clinic. The use of immigration detention facilities that are penal in nature breaches U.S. commitments under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (A 2011 report by Human Rights First, "Jails and Jumpsuits," is a good resource for further understanding on how those laws apply).

"The U.S. Department of Homeland Sec­urity treats Central American asylum-seeking children and their mothers as criminals, heaping added anxiety and trauma onto women and children who were forced to migrate because their lives were threatened in the places they called home," the UUSC report authors argued.

It is well established that detention has many negative long-term effects on detainees. Detention of children is specifically alarming due to its potential devastating effects on their physical, emotional, and psychological development, even if they are able to remain with their families. The UUSC report listed some of the negative effects of detention on children: "anxiety, self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts, regressions in development, problems with parent-child attachment, PTSD, weight loss, and illness."

Harassment and Humiliation

In addition to the trauma of detention, those held in Dilley and Karnes also must contend with conditions that are worse than they would likely be in a government-run facility. The UUSC report revealed that women experienced frequent harassment and humiliation at the hands of guards. Women reported humiliations, such as having officials randomly order them to throw away items. M said that guards would yell at women in Karnes when their kids made noise. She recalled guards asking kids not to play together. They would tell her son, "Stay close to your mom." Her son would tell her, "Mama, if we were puppies, they would have treated us better. At least they would let us play outside."

M remembers only one kind guard at Karnes who used to give kids candies and toys. This guard did not last long; he was fired because he was "too close" to the detainees.

Olivia Lopez, after spending five months as the lead licensed social worker at Karnes, released a statement reporting the poor conditions she witnessed. Lopez, who holds a Ph.D. in social science, wrote about the use of medical observation rooms to isolate women and children as a punishment method. She mentioned a woman being held in isolation after she made legitimate complaints about the conditions at the center. Another was placed on suicide watch; she was separated from her children, who were placed in a separate isolation room with someone to feed them and watch over them. The woman was not permitted to see her husband, who had driven to Karnes to see his wife and children. It was the last chance for him to see them; the woman and children were deported shortly afterward.

Furthermore, when women at Karnes went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their imprisonment late March 2015, Karnes locked up the hunger strike leaders. "GEO staff also threatened to separate the striking mothers from their children and told them they would file complaints with Child Protective Services because refusal to feed their children was considered neglect," Lopez wrote.

Lopez said she was instructed not to help women – who typically have little or no education – file requests for medical appointments, translate correspondence from ICE officers, or complete request forms. She was also told not to speak to auditors or ICE about any issues in Karnes.

M talked about the lack of medical services at Karnes. Whenever children got sick, mothers were told to give them more water. Most of the time no medicine was offered to sick children and women. A pregnant woman who repeatedly complained about her stomachache received no attention. She eventually had a miscarriage, M said.

Grassroots Leadership reported this summer that 250 children detained at the Dilley detention center were given adult doses of hepatitis A vaccine, an overdose of which causes fever, pain, and difficulty walking.

Besides the lack of medical and mental health services, Lopez wrote about anti-immigrant attitudes among Karnes staff. One nurse told Lopez, "Women [immigrants] were dirty, disrespectful, and ungrateful."

Another major problem women and children face on a daily basis in detention is the food. Food was either cold, spoiled, raw, or had worms, M explained. She recalled the "barbecue," which was basically raw meat with a lot of sauce on top. Many women had to buy food from the canteen inside the detention center because their kids were getting sick from the food they were served.

However, the conditions at Karnes would get slightly better when there were official visitors, M said. "They would bring out the toys, tablecloths, and even provide better food." They also made sure to lock up one woman who was vocal in her complaints about the conditions.

A Deterrent That Does Not Deter

On July 24, Judge Dolly M. Gee of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California issued an order declaring that the practice of family detention violates the Flores settlement, the 1997 result of a class-action lawsuit which mandates that children should not be detained unless they pose a security risk. In cases where detention is unavoidable, children should be housed in child-welfare-licensed facilities, according to Flores. Gee's ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed requesting that the U.S. Department of Justice comply with Flores. She gave the government 90 days to comply with the order.

On August 6, the DOJ filed a response, in which the administration committed to process women and children in detention centers within an average of 20 days, which is a positive move. However, the shift to process people quickly poses the possibility of injustice to families with pending cases, Jonathan Ryan explained. People who have negative CFI determinations can request a judge to review the decision. Recently, however, families with pending cases have been deported without a second review, according to Ryan.

Karnes and Dilley are both run by for-profit companies that have no expertise in child welfare, which contradicts the terms of Judge Gee's order. Therefore, ICE asked the Texas Department of Family and Pro­tect­ive Services (DFPS) to issue a special "emergency" rule that eased some of the current regulatory requirements for licensed child-care services, including a limitation of four children per bedroom. "These emergency reforms bend the rules so that the government can be authorized to keep warehousing families in substandard conditions," Grassroots Leadership reported. The organization filed a lawsuit against DFPS, challenging its institution of the emergency rule without a full public-review process.

In a statement released by the DOJ in response to Gee's order, the administration claimed that ending detention "would heighten the risk of another surge in illegal migration ... by incentivizing adults to bring children with them on their dangerous journey as a means to avoid detention and gain access to the interior of the United States."

Families released from detention at Karnes wait for buses at the San Antonio Greyhound station. (Photos courtesy of Tatiana Shirasaki)

It is well established that detention is not a deterrent, Gilman told the Chronicle. "People die in the desert on their journey to the U.S. If death is not deterring people, nothing is," said Cristina Parker, Grassroots Leader­ship's immigration programs director.

"If I could go back in time, I would still decide to come to the U.S.," M said, despite the experience of being detained with her son for 11 months. "I had no other option. I would rather live my whole life detained than be free in Guatemala."

"It is extremely troubling that the government is operating family detention centers to send a deterring message to somebody else, not the women and children who are locked up in those facilities," Gilman said. "Our constitutional scheme does not allow for penalizing people for things they have not done."

In justifying detention, the DOJ stated, "Families who were released from detention failed to appear at their immigration hearings." But that justification is not convincing to the advocates and lawyers who work with immigrants. "Immigration hearings are the immigrants' chance to stay legally in the U.S.," Parker said. "The government has not provided clear statistics to support this justification," according to Gilman, who explained that statistics show when immigrants have legal counsel, they are more likely to appear at their hearings. The legal process is complicated and hard for women to navigate on their own. "The real key is legal representation, and not detention," said Gilman.

"A Picture of Such Horror"

GEO and CCA, the companies that run the Karnes and Dilley detention centers, have records of prisoner abuse, poor employee pay and benefits, escapes, riots, and lawsuits, according to a 2014 Grassroots Leadership report, "For-Profit Family Detention." For instance, GEO-run federal prisons have seen deaths in custody, a lack of medical care, overcrowding, and extreme isolation.

In 2012, Judge Carlton Reeves described the GEO-run Walnut Grove juvenile detention center facility as "a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world." The court found that the guards repeatedly sexually assaulted children, and that the juvenile detention center's record on brutal rapes among prisoners was the worst "of any facility anywhere in the nation." Further investigations also revealed that guards were setting up "gladiator-style" fights between the children, which they then bet on.

The T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, which functioned as a family detention center before 2009, is run by CCA. (Hutto now houses only adult detainees.) The facility was the subject of two federal sexual abuse investigations and a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011. A CCA employee was found guilty of sexually abusing at least eight female immigrant detainees while transporting them from the facility.

"The existence of a billion-dollar industry that thrives on detaining refugees is troubling," Parker noted, explaining that the for-profit companies use the taxpayer money they receive for running the centers to lobby Congress for more contracts with terms beneficial to the corporations. "Those companies are not there to rehabilitate refugees or help them navigate the immigration system; they only care about answering to their shareholders," said Parker. Since 2003, CCA and GEO combined have spent more than $32 million lobbying the federal government, including direct lobbying of the Department of Homeland Security.

The role that private companies play in immigrants' lives does not end with detention. A subsidiary of GEO was awarded a contract for ankle monitors women released from detention must wear until their cases are finalized, which takes months. Women have to shower and sleep wearing the ankle monitors, and charge them every day. "It is very stigmatizing; it marks an immigrant as someone who is being watched and controlled by the government."

Referring to her own ankle monitor, M said, "I am not a criminal, I did not try to sneak into the U.S., I came to talk to immigration officers."

Two months ago ICE awarded another million-dollar contract to a GEO subsidiary for case management. ICE chose a company with no experience in immigration case management over nonprofit organizations that have worked with refugees for decades, Ryan explained.

Despite the harsh criticism the government has received over family detention, the Obama administration is persistent on the current detention model, which not only causes harm to vulnerable populations, but is also expensive. The government pays private companies around $300 a day per detained immigrant, Ryan said. Detention also has a huge cost to the legal communities who have invested energy and time assisting refugees and immigrants. The centers are often remotely located, requiring lawyers to drive an hour to see their clients. "It would be cheaper and more effective if the government spent money on providing legal assistance to refugees instead of spending money on enforcement and deporting them back to hell," Ryan said.

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immigration, family detention, RAICES, Border Patrol, ICE, Karnes County Residential Center, Jonathan Ryan, GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, Denise Gilman, Oliva Lopez, Grassroots Leadership, Cristina Parker

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