A Reflection of Our Barbarity: Jailing Immigrant Mothers and Babies

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A Reflection of Our Barbarity: Jailing Immigrant Mothers and Babies

A Spanish and English welcome sign in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. (Photo: AP/Eric Gay)

Hundreds of undocumented families who have fled from poverty, violence and organized crime in Central American countries including Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are locked up in “residential centers” in Karnes County and Dilley, Texas; Berks County, Pa.; and, until recently, Artesia, N.M. The families are imprisoned while awaiting their immigration hearings.

The fact that we have “family detention” centers in the U.S. to imprison whole families, including newborns, ought to frighten the hell out of us. How we treat the most vulnerable among us is a measure of our humanity. By the yardstick that these centers offer us, we are downright barbaric.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he rightly ended the practice of family detention, which began under President George W. Bush. Hundreds of families were being held at the notorious T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former state prison in Taylor, Texas. Inside the center, which was privately run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), conditions were appalling—particularly for children, who made up half the population. The New York Times described the policy change to end family detention as “the Obama administration’s clearest departure from its predecessor’s immigration enforcement policies.”

Families apprehended at the border were once more allowed to stay with relatives in the U.S. while awaiting their court hearings for asylum and other immigration-related requests. Then, five years later, President Obama abruptly decided to resume family detention, a decision made public in an ill-timed announcement by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—on World Refugee Day in 2014. The change in policy was likely a response to the influx of unaccompanied Central American minors arriving in the U.S. last summer, which caused great controversy in Congress. Now, reported The Times, “Since June of last year, the Obama administration has upended that tradition [of allowing asylum applicants to live with family and friends]. Rather than release the families on bond to await a hearing, officials place virtually all women with children into the new detention facilities.” That includes a baby as young as 14 days old.

Like much of what the Democrats do in comparison to Republicans, brutality has a veneer of humanity. Originally called the Karnes County Civil Detention Center, the Texas prison where hundreds of women and children are locked up was recently euphemistically renamed Karnes County Residential Center. The center is run by the GEO Group, the second-largest private company after CCA operating prisons in the United States. It received a makeover to transform it from a prison into nothing more than a nicer-looking prison. Furniture is colorful and kid-friendly. A large, painted sign reading “Bienvenidos Welcome” greets people at the door. But the soft facade obscures the fact that it incarcerates mothers and babies.

Sameera Hafiz, a legislative and policy consultant with the group “We Belong Together,” has been working closely with the immigrants detained at Karnes. She explained in an interview on “Uprising” that most of the women involved in a hunger strike at Karnes in early April had “passed their credible fear interviews, so they had made an initial showing that they are eligible for asylum because they faced persecution if they are returned to their home countries.” These mothers were attempting to go through the legal process of applying for immigration status. It was only after they remained imprisoned for months under unbearable conditions that they began fasting to draw public attention.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in Texas, told me that the hunger strikers faced retaliation so severe that they were placed in solitary confinement along with their children. “Several women were rounded up as the supposed ringleaders of the fast,” Ryan said, “and they were brought into isolation rooms which were dark, in which they were kept with their children.”

Rather than serving as some sort of humane alternative to separating families by imprisoning just the adults, family detention is a traumatic experience—especially for children. It can result in serious psychological scars for life. Delmi Cruz and her 11-year-old son, Alexis, have been held at Karnes for seven months and continue to remain locked up despite being eligible for parole. After participating in the hunger strike, they were among those placed in solitary confinement. Alexis is reportedly suffering from deep depression. Ryan related that those who have visited the mother and son recently found that:

… Alexis’ entire demeanor and mental health deteriorated rapidly during that time and that he really has not recovered. He is in a constant state of crying and depression, and is failing to make eye contact. It has been a really brutal, brutal experience, not just for the mothers but of course for these children.

Another mother, Kenia Galeano, who also participated in the hunger strike, was allowed to post bond and was finally released a week later. As a second hunger strike began in mid-April, Galeano gave interviews to the press about her friends inside Karnes who remain imprisoned and the conditions she and others faced. Guards reportedly threatened to separate her from her 2-year-old child if she continued her hunger strike. Like Cruz, she, too, was placed in a dark isolation room with her baby. 

But why was Galeano released whereas Cruz and others remain locked up? The answer is shocking. Galeano’s $7,500 bond was paid by a staffer at RAICES, which also has a campaign to free Delmi Cruz. The reason both women were locked up in the first place was, as Hafiz revealed, because the Obama administration “has been using family detention as a deterrent against immigration.”

In February, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ordered a preliminary injunction halting the practice of family detention as a deterrent. Boasberg wrote, “Such detention ... is particularly harmful to minor children.” DHS seems to have responded, not by freeing families, but by simply increasing the bonds so much ($7,500 to $10,000) that most of the mothers, like Cruz and Galeano, who are poor to begin with cannot afford them on their own.

Officials have made no secret of using detention as a deterrent. At an opening ceremony of the nation’s largest family detention center in Dilley, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson declared, “l believe this is an effective deterrent. … Frankly, we want to send a message that our border is not open to illegal migration, and if you come here, you should not expect to simply be released.” Unless you can muster the thousands of dollars to post bond, he should have added.

Despite Boasberg’s injunction, Congress passed a spending bill a month later that included hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to continue and even expand the use of family detention centers.

As a nation, we are locking up babies and their mothers in order to discourage other babies and mothers from crossing the border as they flee violence and poverty looking for a better life. Setting aside the cruelty of such a policy, studies such as this one have shown that detention has no deterrent effect on would-be immigrants. Moreover, the issue itself is being wrongly framed. Ryan clarified that “This is not about the enforcement of our immigration laws. This is about refugee resettlement and how our country treats bona fide refugees who seek protection.”

So then why are we continuing these horrific policies that are scarring children—the most innocent and vulnerable among us? One possible reason is simply that there is a great hunger for our tax dollars from private corporations like GEO and CCA that have crafted a business model based on incarceration. Ryan revealed that “today if a woman and child arrive at the border and there is no room at the for-profit, private detention center, then that woman and child is apparently not a threat to our nation’s security and they are released.” This means that those families unlucky enough to arrive at the border when beds are available will be locked up. Ryan added that the “government’s quota ... was established to keep those companies profitable by maintaining 34,000 people in detention every night.” Every mother and child incarcerated at facilities like Karnes are simply a conduit for funneling $350 a day into corporate coffers.

Detainees at Karnes earn a paltry $3 a day to clean the premises. Incidentally, a single bottle of water costs $2.50 at the commissary, and many mothers work all day to purchase water for their children, worried about the strong-smelling tap water available at the detention center. Karnes County is, according to RT, “in the middle of one of the most active fracking and drilling areas in the nation, with nearly 9,000 sunken wells and another 5,500 approved since 2008.” Fracking operations are notorious for contaminating drinking water. Ryan also recounted that mothers who might try to smuggle a box of milk or an orange from the cafeteria to give their children later in the day have had the food confiscated as “contraband” and been told to purchase the same items from the commissary of the for-profit prison. Children, who are not used to the food being served, have lost weight, and mothers are literally watching their babies waste away in front of their eyes.

It is under these circumstances that the mothers at Karnes have launched the second hunger strike to call attention to their plight and that of their children. Hafiz said “it is inhumane and un-American to hold children and mothers in jail facilities.”

She is right. Family detention is antithetical to the ideals of freedom, family values and human rights often touted by leaders. The mothers of Karnes County Residential Center are fighting to be heard. Will we listen?

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV (click here for the campaign to televise Uprising). She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."

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