Washington – An almost-abandoned practice of holding migrant mothers and children in prisonlike settings is not only back but also is surging as the U.S. government continues to struggle with the wave of migrants fleeing violence in Central America.
The rapid expansion of family detention centers in the last 10 months has reignited a debate over whether it’s appropriate to detain mothers and children in what some advocates describe as prison camps. Activists say many of these women and children have legitimate asylum claims and shouldn’t be held. They cite tough living conditions and allegations of abuse such as a case in Pennsylvania in which a guard is charged with assaulting a teenage detainee.
But the government argues that a message needs to be sent back to Central America that those who cross the border illegally will be captured, held and returned.
At this time last year, the only family detention center in operation was a lightly used 100-bed facility an hour and half outside Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, in Berks County, Pa. Now there are three such facilities across the country as the Department of Homeland Security ramps up its capacity to house about 3,700 mothers and children. Late spring and summer have traditionally been high-traffic times for migrants crossing the southern U.S. border.
While most of the discussion over the wave of migrants from Central America has centered on roughly 50,000 unaccompanied minors who rushed to the United States last year fleeing violence and poverty, even more – 52,000 – so-called “family units” were apprehended as they sought safety in the United States. That’s a more than 700 percent increase from the previous year, when just more than 7,000 family units were apprehended, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“These women have committed no crime,” said Carol Anne Donohoe, a lawyer who represents several women and children at the Berks County detention center. “There is no reason we should continue to detain them except that it’s supposed to be a deterrent.”
Some in Congress have proposed measures that might mean more women and children are held or held longer.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hear proposed legislation that would make it even tougher for families to argue they should be allowed to remain in the United States for fear of returning to their homelands.
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who sponsored the legislation, charged that President Barack Obama’s immigration policies have sent a message to Central America that the U.S. government is “rubber-stamping” the applications of families who claim credible fears of persecution so they can be released while awaiting hearings.
“Too many are finding ways to game the system,” Chaffetz said in a statement when releasing the legislation. “By strengthening standards for those who claim ‘credible fear’ we can expedite the removal process.”
Since July, more than 2,500 immigrants, mostly women and children, have been detained at four family detention centers, including one in Artesia, N.M., that was closed amid controversy late last year.
To pursue asylum, immigrants have to show “credible fear” in an official interview, which is a fear that if they return to their home countries they may face persecution. The approval rate for credible fear was nearly 70 percent at those four facilities from July to January, and it climbed as high as 100 percent at some facilities. Immigration attorneys credit the rise in credible-fear cases to the women and children receiving better legal representation after receiving little legal guidance during the first few months that families were being detained.
The newest center, in Dilley, Texas, will be the largest immigrant detention center in the country. It opened in December and holds about 500 people, but will eventually house 2,400. It consists of a series of cabins, each designed for eight people and outfitted with bunk beds and televisions. Immigration officials say there are exercise classes for the mothers and board games and a playground for the children. Kids have classes each day on the grounds. The cafeteria provides three meals a day and is culturally sensitive, according to federal officials.
In Pennsylvania, the detainees at the Berks County Residential Center paint a much harsher picture.
In a phone interview with a reporter, one mother from Honduras said guards regularly yelled at the immigrant children. She contacted a reporter using a facility phone when staff was away and described quick-tempered guards who would scream and curse at 5- and 8-year-olds who were running or playing.
As children could be heard crying in the background, the mother passed the phone to another woman, who said her child had been sick with a cough but that she couldn’t get the child medicine from the staff. A third woman who took the phone complained that there was no appropriate food for the children, saying they sometimes had been given food that had gone bad.
“The part that hurts us the most is that they treat our children badly,” said the first woman. McClatchy isn’t naming the women because they fear reprisals from the guards. “We can take anything, but the children shouldn’t be treated that way. They’re not to blame for us being here.”
Another immigrant, Ana Rivera, 34, and her 8-year-old daughter were held eight months last year at the detention center in Leesport, Pa. They shared one room, which had six beds, with two other families. Rivera said she’d fled domestic violence from her daughter’s stepfather in Honduras. From May to December, when she was granted asylum and released to family in Houston, she lived in fear, not knowing whether she’d be released or deported like other detainees, Rivera said.
“I was in basically in jail with my little girl,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to us.
She described a much more difficult environment in which guards harassed detainees. One mother was detained with a 2-week-old baby, then held for several weeks before lawyers were able to get her released to family, according to the family’s attorney. A guard was charged with seven counts of institutional sexual abuse of a 19-year-old detainee. Rivera’s daughter reported that she’d once walked in on the alleged abuse taking place in a bathroom stall.
Meanwhile, in December, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of mothers and children that seeks to invalidate the Obama administration’s policy on detaining these families as they await asylum hearings.
ICE officials said the opening and expansion of facilities that could hold women and children was part of Obama’s immigration executive action and his promise to prioritize deportations of recent arrivals, specifically those who arrived after Jan. 1, 2014.
Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for ICE, said the facilities ensured timely deportation proceedings and “should demonstrate to everyone” that the border wasn’t open to illegal migration.
“Those who come here illegally will be sent back, unless they qualify for some form of humanitarian relief under our laws,” Rusnok said in a statement.
Rusnok said the family residential centers were an effective and humane alternative to keep families together as they awaited their immigration hearings or were removed. He said that any accusations of unlawful conduct were investigated thoroughly and if they were substantiated, appropriate action was taken.
A guard at the Berks facility, Daniel Sharkey, 40, of West Reading, Pa., was arrested and charged with seven counts of institutional sexual assault. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 24.
Rivera’s daughter told police that she’d walked in on Sharkey and the detainee in the bathroom stall. The little girl said she’s seen Sharkey’s hands on the woman’s hips. According to the police report, the little girl didn’t know whether he was pulling up or pulling down the detainee’s shorts. She didn’t stick around to find out.
After that, the little girl wouldn’t leave her mother’s side, Rivera said, “because she was so scared of the staff.”
The 19-year-old’s detainee’s attorney, Matthew Archambeault, said the guard had provided the young woman with gifts and promised to help her with her immigration case. When she resisted his advances, he got angry, the attorney said. McClatchy doesn’t usually name victims of sexual assault.
Sharkey’s attorney, Allan Sodomsky, said it was premature to discuss his client’s case as he had yet to have a court hearing.
“When people jump to conclusions based on allegations, then the justice system doesn’t work,” Sodomsky said.
Berks officials did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Such allegations are not new. Similar allegations were made about the Artesia, N.M., center that was closed. But an inspector general for DHS found no evidence of sexual abuse and harassment at a Karnes, Texas, center that holds about 500 women and children, according to a report released Friday.
The investigation was launched after reports of a guard taking women to the laundry room to have sex with them. Investigators interviewed 33 people and found the allegations to be untrue. A woman said to have gotten pregnant volunteered to have a pregnancy test, which came back negative.
Rivera’s attorney, Bridget Cambria, represents 15 families at the Berks County facility. She said she had a client who’d passed out because of a heart condition but remained held. Another client, Cambria said, was held for several weeks despite having a child who was just 2 weeks old. The mother claimed the baby was a U.S. citizen. Immigration officials said the baby was not, according to Cambria.
“If you make family detention a staple, something that we do normally, things are going to start to happen that are basic violations of human rights,” Cambria said.
Voices from Berks County family detention center
Three mothers contacted McClatchy and gave brief descriptions in Spanish of their experiences at the center. Here are edited portions of some of their accounts:
They don’t want the children to run. They don’t want the children to talk. They want the children to be silent and standing next to us at all times. They don’t want the children to be children. They use bad words when they talk to the kids. They think we don’t understand, but there are some words we understand very well. They don’t let us wear the clothes our family sends us. They want us to wear only extra-large clothes. I had an interview where I was told my case was credible, meaning positive, but still nothing has happened.
– a Honduran
The situation is here very difficult. How they treat us is not good. To live like this is not good. The food is not appropriate for the children. The staff is very impatient with the kids. The children go to the school here at the facility, but there is limited hot water for the children to bathe in. They treat us like we’re in prison. We’re here locked up and prevented from freedom. You know, it’s not a typical jail like a jail where we’d be if we didn’t have children, but the way they treat us we feel like prisoners. It’s depressing. We’re afraid.
– another Honduran
They give us chicken only once a week or twice a month. The majority of the food is vegetables. Lettuce, onions. Only once a week do they give chicken. The rice doesn’t have sauce. The guards buy their food from places like McDonald’s. The children watch them eat and of course they want to eat that food. They do this in front of the children.
– a third immigrant