Scales of justice or money?I am sitting in a windowless cement room on an uncomfortable plastic chair with two law UDC-DCSL law students, Dara Gold and Rachel Weiss, awaiting the beginning of a court hearing in San Antonio Immigration Court.  We are seated next to our clients and six other women from Central America, all seeking asylum for themselves and their children in the United States to escape the rampant violence and dangerous conditions in their home countries.  The only other person in the room is an employee of the private prison company GEO, which runs Karnes County Residential Center, dressed in an official looking uniform.  It is eerily silent.  None of the women speak English, and their expressions are inscrutable.

They are waiting to learn their fates. Is today the day the Immigration Judge will reduce their bonds so their families can afford to bring them home from detention?  Or will they be locked up here with their children indefinitely while the broken immigration system processes their claims for asylum?

The judge finally appears on a blurry wide-screen TV, along with an interpreter and a court clerk who speak only in English as they put the cases on the record.  Finally, the first case is called, and one of the women is brought to the white folding table at the front of the room. Dara sits beside her, but she has been admonished that she is there only to observe, and can’t counsel her client.   The woman’s only lifeline is a hand held telephone that connects her to the translator, who explains the judge’s questions, then translates the woman’s answers back to the judge.

This is what passes for justice for the women and children detained at Karnes and other family detention centers recently re-opened to stem the tide of immigration from Central America. 

Today, our two clients are represented by student attorneys William Fenwick, Tamara Lewis, Maureen Murat, and Tameka Tilliman, supervised by Professor Kristina Campbell and LL.M. Fellow Johan Fatemi — located in the court room sixty miles away in San Antonio.  Based on the extensive documentation of violence and persecution presented in the bond applications prepared by the students, the ICE attorney offers to reduce the first woman’s bond from $7,500 to $3,000.  The judge directs the students to ask her whether she wants to accept the deal. The only counsel they can provide her is through that telephone line, within clear earshot of the judge and opposing attorney.

The student advocate asks whether the client wants to accept the deal, or to fight the case and try to get a lower bond. This is truly a Hobson’s choice.  $3,000 is still an exorbitant amount of money for a family that came across the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs. On the other hand, if she refuses the deal, the student explains that the judge may leave the bond at $7,500, reduce it to another amount, or even increase the bond.

The client takes the deal, and after the formality of pleading to the charges that she and her infant son crossed the border illegally, she goes back to the visitation room. There, the student advocate who is with her at Karnes explains what happened in court, and how the bond process works. Efforts are under way to raise the funds needed to bond this woman out, but what about the six other women in the room with us that morning — and all the hundreds of unseen, unrepresented women incarcerated in family residential centers for months, even years, because they cannot afford the costly bonds ICE has set for them?

Are bonds in the vicinity of $7,500 — or even $3,000 — necessary to ensure that women seeking asylum will appear for their hearings? Or are they simply sending a message that women and children should not risk their lives to cross the border seeking asylum, only to be locked up in privately owned detention centers that operate like prisons?

By law, ICE should only require a bond in one of three circumstances:

  • when a person presents a danger to property or persons;
  • when they present a threat to national security; or
  • when they present a flight risk (and may not show up for scheduled court appearances).

At the beginning of the current wave of Central American migration — caused by massive gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador — the Department of Homeland Security took the position that all of the families crossing the border posed a high risk of flight, and that some posed a threat to national security. This was based on a post-911 case, Matter of D-J, which ruled that mass migration immediately after the terrorist attacks raised national security concerns.  The Obama Administration also took the position that there should be a blanket “no bond or high bond” policy to deter others from illegally crossing the border.

In February 2015, a federal judge issued an injunction prohibiting the Obama Administration from keeping people in family detention solely for the purpose of deterrence. Following the R.I.L-R case, people in detention are entitled to an individualized determination whether they present a flight risk or a danger to the community. In April, another federal judge issued a ruling that family detention violates a 1997 settlement in Flores v. Meese, which requires minors to be placed with family or a legal guardian, if possible.  If detained, they must be placed in the “least restrictive environment possible.”

This might look like the beginning of the end of family detention, yet on any given day, at least 34,000 people are detained in immigrant detention centers in the U.S. to meet an arbitrary lock-up quota dictated by Congress. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to justify family detention as an “important part of the U.S. government’s comprehensive response to the unprecedented spike in illegal migration at the Rio Grande Valley, according to DHS spokesperson Marsha Catron.   She called family residential centers “an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries,” and hailed ICE’s commitment “to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner.”

A study conducted by Human Rights Watch tells a different story.  It found that indefinite detention takes a severe psychological toll on women and children, including extreme depression and suicidal thoughts.  Recently, a young mother who slit her wrists in the bathroom was hastily removed from the facility; put in isolation in a remote hotel without access to her attorney; and summarily deported to cover up the story.

ICE has retreated from its “no bond or high bond” policy, but bonds continue to be routinely set between $7,500 to $10,000.  If a woman is fortunate enough to be represented by counsel, that may be reduced to $3,000-$5,000 — still an exorbitant amount for most families of incarcerated women and children, who have to scrape together all of their resources and pledge their limited assets to make bond. Is this the way the bond system was designed to work, or are we holding families ransom to further a political agenda that places “getting tough on immigration” above humanitarian principles?

Non-profit organizations like RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), working with hundreds of volunteers from around the country, have done a phenomenal job of providing representation to incarcerated families.  But there are not enough lawyers to go around, and the facilities are located (some say intentionally) in remote areas of the country that make it difficult for pro bono attorneys to visit their clients.  Families who are represented are much more likely to prevail on the merits of their asylum claims, which require the submission of highly detailed and technical documentation of violence, persecution and country conditions.

Despite a growing public outcry from Democratic members of Congress, religious groups, the ACLU and other nonprofit organizations, DHS seems committed to keeping as many families locked up as possible. The United Nations reports that nearly 14 million people were displaced in 2014 due to violent conditions in their home countries.

As Americans, we are shocked when European nations turn their backs on refugees from Somalia and other parts of the globe, yet the same thing is happening in our own back yard.  It is time that we stand up and demand that the Obama Administration reconsider its ill-conceived policies, and start upholding the humanitarian values that we all believe in.