There’s been a lot of news coverage of the ICE raids, of the aggressive tactics used to arrest vulnerable families at their homes and to arrest children on the way to school. But what hasn’t received as much coverage is the damage that raids victims endure after their arrest. Some remain trapped in prolonged ICE detention and suffer psychologically and physically.
My client Johanna* was subjected to three straight days of solitary confinement at an ICE detention center in Georgia. She is just 18 years old – a victim of rape and severe domestic violence in El Salvador who fled to the US over two years ago, all alone.
The three days spent in solitary confinement were torture for this trauma survivor. Why was she there? Because she told her deportation officer that two of her fellow detainees were making fun of her. Calling her a lesbian. Telling others they saw her kiss a girl.
So they bullied her; and she was placed in solitary. Against her will. She spent most of those three days crying alone.
I have been trying to arrange for a mental health professional to visit with her in detention, but ICE has not responded.
Johanna has endured so much just to seek protection in the U.S. She was arrested in an “Operation Border Guardian” raid in Atlanta and has been fighting for her right to present her asylum claim ever since.
But detention is wearing her down. Some days it feels like that is exactly what it is designed to do.
My other client, Jaime* – also just 18 years old – is constantly bullied by other detainees at Irwin. He has already endured nearly seven months of detention after an Operation Border Guardian raid. The other detainees tease him because they think he is gay. He has made several complaints to his deportation officer to no avail. ICE has not responded. Jaime also desperately needs medication for what he was told is gastritis. Despite knowing that he was in pain, ICE refused to give him this medication for weeks, telling him that he was about to be deported. ICE finally resumed his medications after intervention by me and the consulate.
Jaime is a survivor of trafficking. He was just 17 years old when he fled Guatemala and was kidnapped and subjected to forced labor with minimal food and water. He was sequestered for approximately ten days and was forced to work in an auto body repair shop. During that time, he was shown pictures of crocodiles eating the bodies of individuals, a threat in case he thought about defying his captors.
Jaime is deeply traumatized as a result of this psychological and physical coercion, as well as from his own history of child abuse. His prolonged detention has exacerbated his trauma. I am also trying to arrange a meeting with an independent mental health professional for Jaime – but without success so far.
Both of these teenagers were denied a fair day in court on their claims the first time around. Because our system does not guarantee legal counsel even to vulnerable children like Jaime and Johanna, they were forced to seek out legal assistance on their own, with little means – and unfortunately, the help they found completely undermined their cases and did not present their claims to the judge. Jaime and Johanna ended up with removal orders but not due process, despite having strong claims for protection under US law.
Why are these vulnerable trauma survivors being subjected to lengthy detention? Why is a teenage girl in solitary confinement? Why is a suffering boy denied medicine for weeks? Why is it taking so long for independent mental health professionals to be able to meet with my detained clients? Is this what immigration enforcement looks like under the Obama Administration?
In November 2014, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote a memo stating that vulnerable individuals should generally not be subjected to detention. I wholeheartedly agree with this and want to see it implemented – especially given that there are proven community-based alternatives to detention that work. But admirable reforms like this cannot be selectively applied. Jaime and Johanna should not be exempt from the application of humane detention policies just because they have a removal order. Or just because they had the misfortune of fleeing violence after some arbitrary date and not before.
If the Obama Administration is not detaining just to deter others from coming– as it says it is no longer doing, and as a federal court already ruled it cannot do – then why are Jaime and Johanna still in detention?
Written by Elanie Cintron, AILA Asylum and Refugee Committee Member
*Names have been changed.