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“Trauma on Trauma”: For Refugee Children, the Journey Is Just the Beginning

Confinement in immigrant family jails traumatizes refugee children fleeing violence.

Confinement in immigrant family jails traumatizes refugee children fleeing violence.

Part of the Series

Adele’s* 7-year-old daughter cries often.

She cries at home and at school, whenever she thinks about the gang-perpetrated assassination she and her mother witnessed in their home country of El Salvador, and the death threats that soon followed. She also cries when she remembers the abuse inflicted on her mother by her mother’s partner that, combined with the gang violence, caused her and her mother to flee to the U.S. in May.

“They wanted to kill me,” Adele told Truthout, speaking through a translator, about why she chose to leave El Salvador with her child to seek asylum.

Adele and her daughter were arrested at the border and were held for 45 days in an immigrant family jail in Karnes City, Texas. Now, Adele worries the two of them will be again be detained or deported back to El Salvador.

She worries more about her daughter’s constant fear of the same. Even if they aren’t deported, she worries that the trauma and fear that her young daughter has experienced will haunt her for the rest of her life.

“I am worried because she is so young, and she knows what it’s like to be detained. She knows what it’s like to be hunted, for someone to want to kill you. I don’t like that for her, but it’s the reality that we have had to live,” Adele says.

Adele and her daughter were released from the Karnes family jail last summer, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials put Adele on a GPS-equipped electronic ankle monitor.

“I am worried because she is so young, and she knows what it’s like to be detained. She knows what it’s like to be hunted.”

When a person applies for asylum, they must pass what’s known as a credible fear interview, a critical step in determining whether the government considers their asylum claim valid. Adele told Truthout that during her first credible fear interview with an asylum officer, she withheld parts of her story after receiving conflicting information from other detainees in Karnes who led her to believe the information could be used against her, or that she wouldn’t be believed. After an immigration judge ruled she didn’t meet the requirements for asylum, attorneys with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) appealed, and Adele has since been granted a second interview, with a date still pending.

In Karnes, Adele says both she and her daughter were gripped by unrelenting despair as they watched families rotate in and out of the jail — wondering whether they would be next to be released or deported. They found no compassion among the immigration officials and staffers who worked there.

“[It felt like] all the doors were closing for me,” she said. “It was sad to see some lose their family after only days of being there. I wanted to speak to someone who would help me and nobody wanted to. The treatment was abysmal.”

Adele watched as depression took hold of her daughter in the prison, and watches now as it follows her at school. “She cannot forget the memories. I tell her everything is going to be all right, but you know children. They remember everything,” she says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with time.”

“She cannot forget the memories. I tell her everything is going to be all right, but you know children. They remember everything.”

Adele and her daughter are not alone in experiencing this depression, anxiety, uncertainty and trauma. Hundreds of thousands of other women and children have made the perilous journey to escape gang-related violence in Central America’s northern triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and many have been similarly ensnared in one of three U.S. immigrant family jails.

Now, with Trump’s executive orders on immigration signed in January, the family jail system could be drastically expanded, and stays for the women and children detained in them could once again lengthen.

Triple Trauma: Persecuting Refugee Families

Refugee and asylum-seeking mothers and children held in family jails typically experience trauma in layers. After experiencing brutality and bloodshed in their home countries, women and children must endure the migratory traumas of crossing through Mexico to the U.S., where threats from gangs and traffickers often rival the violence of the northern triangle. After surviving the journey, family jail acts as a final traumatic blow, only this time, the persecution is state-sanctioned.

Luis Zayas, who is dean and chair of mental health and social policy at the University of Texas’s School of Social Work, has conducted numerous evaluations of refugee and asylum-seeking mothers and children held in the family jails at Karnes and Dilley, Texas, operated by private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). He first began evaluating children at Karnes in 2014, when, as Truthout previously reported, women and children were being held for much longer durations than they are currently — more than a year in some cases.

In July 2016 a federal court stepped in, forcing the government to release families within 20 days of their apprehension — a mandate now under threat by Trump’s executive orders and Texas legislators.

“I listed it as trauma on trauma on trauma,” said Zayas, referring to notations he made as part of his evaluations.

His evaluations confirm some of what other advocates and lawyers working with detained asylum-seeking families told Truthout throughout 2014 and 2015: Women and children were routinely fed low-quality Mexican food that is culturally inappropriate for Central Americans, and as a result, many children were not eating.

Many others displayed signs of depression. Zayas and others reported that three to four families typically occupy each cell, have no control over temperature and lighting, or have any kind of privacy. Advocates also said that some children had lost substantial weight and looked malnourished — some were even shedding hair. They reported that mothers in the units were threatened with separation from their children and pressured to sign immigration documents, including voluntary deportation forms.

Zayas explained that childhood confinement has a long-lasting impact, affecting psychological and neurological development.

“Adverse childhood experiences are very detrimental to children because they affect brain development.”

“What we know from research is that adverse childhood experiences are very detrimental to children because they affect brain development in such things as executive function skills and problem-solving — distinguishing unique situations within the situation they’re in, knowing when something is dangerous, when to be quiet or not,” Zayas says.

Young children and teenagers often displayed the most dramatic behaviors in response to confinement and trauma, according to Zayas. In his research, he found that younger children were often unable to understand why they and their mothers were being locked up, and older children were coping with the loss of dreams like attending college or finishing high school. Zayas said children also displayed a constant fear of the jails’ guards.

Trauma and sustained stress can even cause children to regress to earlier developmental states. “They might begin to wet their bed. They might become clingy. They might become defiant. It depends on the child, how they might respond to this ongoing stress,” Zayas said.

He witnessed such behavior at Karnes during his evaluations, citing the case of a 9-year-old child who wanted to be breastfed. Further, he cited children experiencing night terrors at the jail, screaming in their sleep in a psychological distress clearly distinct from more ordinary nightmares. Chronic stress also puts children at risk of developing physical autoimmune conditions as they grow, he adds.

Even children who exhibit the impacts of confinement less dramatically are still profoundly affected by being cut off from the experiences and routines that make up a healthy developmental pattern — some at critical stages in their growth. Young toddlers and teenagers are particularly vulnerable.

“We’re really depriving children of the average experiences that come with living in communities,” said Zayas. This can delay children’s social development, especially in terms of their “capacity to know what they’re supposed to do and not to do under certain conditions, … how to handle other kids or the parents of other kids, how do you negotiate the playground or recess, things like that,” he said.

“What’s harmful is the truncated developmental potential of these kids by being in prison for no reason.”

Social development is not the only process that is disrupted; children’s ability to keep up with the progression of school may also suffer. Children held in family jails do not receive education that is comparable to normal public schools. This can put them at a significant disadvantage when reentering the school system. “What’s harmful is the truncated developmental potential of these kids by being in prison for no reason,” Zayas says.

Mothers are, of course, deeply affected by the immigrant family jail system in ways that overlap with their children’s experiences of depression, fear of jail officials and being severed from relatives and community. However, they also experience compounding pressures and traumas. Jail guards and officials constantly undermine mothers’ parental authority and prerogatives in family detention units. Children observe as their mothers become disempowered by the detention system, and are verbally belittled and abused by jail staff. Allegations of physical and sexual abuse have also surfaced.

“What all little kids or even older kids want is to feel that, ‘Mom and Dad can protect me.’ It’s just natural,” Zayas says. “Well, these kids are seeing, ‘Mom can’t protect me because her power is gone,’ and so the impact on the family dynamic is awful. Moms can’t be moms…. Families are living in this limbo, and not being able to have this natural kind of family experience.”

This can send family relationships askew in ways that take time to heal, with children sometimes losing respect and becoming resentful of their mothers long after leaving the jail.

ICE officials did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

Fighting Back

Although the experiences of asylum-seekers detained in family jails often go unseen and unaddressed, these families and their allies in Texas, where two of the nation’s three family jails are located, are taking action.

Advocates have sued to prevent the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services from licensing privately operated family jails as child care facilities. A Travis County judge blocked the state from lowering its standards to license the jails in December, ruling the state didn’t have the authority to license them.

“Kids are seeing, ‘Mom can’t protect me because her power is gone,’ and so the impact on the family dynamic is awful.”

A child-care-facility designation would allow the Trump administration to get around a federal court order that limited how long families can be detained in jails that are not state-licensed child care facilities. The order enforced the Flores settlement agreement that set minimum national standards for the detention and release of children by ICE, requiring the agencies to make an effort to release a detained child to a parent, close adult relative or other guardian, if possible. The July 2016 order has been appealed in the Ninth Circuit.

Now, Texas lawmakers have filed bills in the state House and Senate that seek to change the administrative code to give the state the authority to license the jails. The Senate version of the bill, SB 1018, was referred to the Veteran Affairs and Border Security Committee this month and is scheduled for a public hearing today. Section G of the bill stipulates that detainees held for deportation “in a publicly or privately operated, licensed, nonsecure facility, including a family residential center,” may be kept “for any period of time.”

“It’s not that they brought the facilities up to the standard of child care licensing. They just made a new rule that lowered the standards, to be able to slap a license on it,” says Cristina Parker, who is immigration programs director at the Austin-based nonprofit group Grassroots Leadership, the organization that filed the suit to block the licensing of the jails last year. “It’s all about trying to get around Flores.”

“It’s not that they brought the facilities up to the standard of child care licensing. They just made a new rule.”

The Texas bills echo a broader crackdown on immigration under the Trump administration as it aims to expand immigrant jails across the nation, including family jails. The administration is even considering making policy changes to preemptively separate asylum-seeking women from their children immediately upon arrival at the U.S.’s southern border.

Severing Mothers and Children at the Border

According to a Reuters report early this month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering a new proposal to immediately separate women and children if they arrive together at the southern border, in an effort to deter mothers from making the trip.

Under the proposal, children would be placed under the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, and their mothers would be jailed while awaiting an asylum hearing. The children would remain in government custody, in Refugee Resettlement facilities, until a relative or “state-sponsored” guardian becomes available.

“We don’t come here because we want to. It’s because we have no choice.”

When Adele first read about the proposal, she was shocked. “It is utter cruelty…. It has no justification,” she told Truthout. Moreover, she says, this will not deter women like her from coming. “We only come here with our children because we can’t be over there…. What people don’t know is we don’t come here because we want to. It’s because we have no choice.”

Refugee advocacy organizations, including the Women’s Refugee Commission and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) released a report this month documenting how current practices at the border already subject families to separation and parental detention, rendering children “unaccompanied” even when they arrive with a parent. During a press call, the organizations condemned the new proposal, arguing the Trump administration is seeking to expand the practice and transform it into formal policy.

“Family separation causes deep suffering among the entire family, but children are the most hurt and badly affected,” said Jennifer Podkul, who is policy director at KIND. “To separate a child from her mother for an indefinite period of time is cruel and flies in the face of basic child protection. The policy also means that children will be detained alone, which is also often traumatic for a child in itself. The policies being developed by the Trump administration would compound these negative consequences significantly.”

If the policy is implemented, it is expected to face legal challenges. Administration officials have said the policy doesn’t violate current law, arguing that it would allow DHS to comply with the Flores order, which mandates that children should be released from family jails as quickly as possible but does not require their parents’ release.

Trump’s executive order calling for new construction of immigrant jails and another order drastically expanding the scope of expedited removal could lead to the detention of large numbers of women and children in newly converted or constructed family jails after being swept up in “interior enforcement actions,” or raids. A January 2016 Obama administration raid sent 121 women and children to Dilley, for instance. Under Trump, even more families could be sent to jail and face fast-tracked deportations.

“We know we have two options: flee or the cemetery.”

Refugee advocacy groups have long argued that policies that separate families at the border or place them in family jails do nothing to address the root causes of families’ flight from violence-stricken countries, or seek to heal the trauma experienced by asylum-seekers. Rather, asylum-seeking families who reach the border should have their cases individually assessed, and should be released to their nearest relative or a community shelter and given access to social and legal services or other community support programs, they argue.

“Only God knows what we experience, why we leave,” Adele says. “We know we have two options: flee or the cemetery.”

*Adele’s name has been changed to protect her identity. She fears retribution from immigration officials for speaking out and does not want to jeopardize her chances at attaining asylum. Ricardo Velázquez translated her statements for Truthout.

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