I recently visited the Karnes County Residential Center and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration and as a CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project volunteer. I have been going to jails and prisons for more than 25 years, my entire career, but I have never been in a prison complete with locked metal doors, security cameras, and a prison wall with fencing thirty feet high, but also with kids in strollers, infants, stacks of diapers, a room of clothes that includes 0-3 month onesies, and a “yard” outfitted to include a playground. Despite what the government calls them, these are prisons, just like any prison I’ve been to throughout my career, except there are children in these. It feels so wrong.
The women who agreed to talk with us had been incarcerated from a couple days to two weeks. They didn’t seem to really grasp the process, their rights, or know what was going to happen next. They also didn’t seem to understand the importance of the credible or reasonable fear interviews, the first step in the path to protection in the U.S. What was apparent was how difficult it is for these women to share what caused them to flee, to lay out the horrifying facts to a complete stranger.
Among the stories shared are those of terror and fear, women trying to escape violence and persecution with children in tow: A teenage daughter threatened with rape and death on her way home from school. Children told that they must sell drugs or their families would be murdered. Friends and cousins tortured and killed. Toddlers and school-age children threatened with guns to their heads while their mothers were forced to watch. The police couldn’t or wouldn’t help them. This is what they fled from.
It became excruciatingly clear that these mothers fled to the U.S. with their children as the ultimate act of motherly love. They did not choose to leave the only homes they had ever known and endure a treacherous, often inhumane, journey through Mexico to come to the U.S. just for a “better life.” They made the journey because they knew of no other way to save their children.
Unfortunately, things don’t get better once they arrive in the U.S. After a family turns themselves over to border patrol, they are thrown into Customs and Border Protection holding facilities, which both the border agents and the women refer to as the “hielera” or “icebox.” The hieleras are freezing cold and packed with families sleeping on the floor with no mattresses, some with small emergency blankets, some without. Some are thrown into the cold wearing soaking wet clothes and are told that this is their punishment for coming to the U.S. and that this is what they and their children deserve. After being held there for a day or two, many then go for a few days to what everyone refers to as the “perrera,” which means dog pound, another CBP holding facility that is comprised of warehouses separated by chain-link fences resembling cages. They are then transferred to a “family residential center” like Dilley or Karnes. This is how we treat mothers who have endured unspeakable horrors and done the bravest acts to save their children. Who are fleeing violence and seeking protection under our laws, as they are entitled to do. They don’t deserve to be mistreated like this.
The federal government argues that family detention is necessary to deter more families from coming to the U.S. But when ABA Commission members asked the mothers whether they knew they would be detained in prisons if they were caught entering the U.S., no one seemed to know this. Is detention a deterrent to future migration if those coming into the U.S. don’t know about it?
The Obama Administration is punishing these brave women and their courageous children. Incarcerating them is what the government feels is the right response to their coming to the U.S. to seek safety. How can that be the right response when all these mothers have done is love their children so much that they will endure just about anything to save them?
Written by Wendy Wayne, CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project volunteer and member of the ABA Commission on Immigration