Sheroes or Criminals? Women flee Central America seeking safety for their children and families. | Laurie Morin
Karnes County Civil Detention Center

Karnes County Civil Detention Center

Ultra-violent youth gangs, spawned in the United States, are terrorizing the northern triangle of Central America.

The gangs, known as maras, hold parts of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala hostage — recruiting young boys with death threats, kidnapping and raping young girls, extorting money, and terrorizing families who will not cooperate. Drugs, crimes and murder are rampant, with a murder rate as high as 80 per 1,000 in some parts of the region.

Along with the prevalent domestic violence and abject poverty, these deadly conditions are prompting many women and children to flee the region, seeking refuge in the United States. The situation is so dire that it caused the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to call for Central American migrants to be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict.

What should the response of the United States be to this humanitarian crisis?

The Obama Administration has decided to take a tough stance, incarcerating women and children in privately owned, for-profit family detention centers — a policy that had been dismantled as the result of litigation over the Don T. Hutto detention center, a private prison in Taylor, Texas. In 2009, the Obama Administration announced that families would no longer be detained at Hutto, and that no new family detention centers would be opened. Since 2009, most families seeking asylum have generally not been detained while their asylum cases proceed through immigration courts.

The justification for re-instituting family detention, as voiced by Celia Munoz, Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council, is to “send a message” that refugees from Central America will not be permitted to stay in this country.

At an appearance at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, Munoz said that, for better or for worse, families seeking asylum in the United States will be housed in “more humane,” family-centered detention centers that are better than concrete jails, until they can be lawfully removed and forced back to the countries where they fear for their lives.

Prior to joining the Obama Administration, Munoz was a celebrated advocate for the rights of immigrants. She served as Senior Vice President for the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization. Her particular area of expertise is immigration policy, which she covered at NCLR for twenty years. While there, she fiercely denounced deportations and advocated for comprehensive immigration reform.

Defending the Obama Administration’s policy is a serious departure from her stellar record at NCLR.  Under this “humane” policy, upward of 400 women and children are currently imprisoned in Karnes County Civil Detention Center, a privately owned concrete facility that looks more like a prison for hardened criminals than a residence for families seeking a better life. Another 1500 or so reside at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and both facilities are under construction to increase their capacity.

The vast majority of these families have already received a finding by a trained immigration officer that they have a “credible fear” of violence or persecution if they are returned to their home countries — paving the way for a successful asylum claim.  Nevertheless, the policy of this country is to keep them detained unless they can post prohibitive bonds to ensure their appearance at their immigration proceedings.

In April 2015, a California judge tentatively ruled that family detention violates parts of a 1997 settlement in a case known as Flores v. Meese. The settlement stipulates migrant children must be released only to foster care, relatives or — if they must be held — in the least restrictive environment possible in facilities licensed to care for children. Human rights advocates hope that this decision will be the “beginning of the end” for Obama’s migrant family detention.

According to Human Rights Watch, indefinite detention of mothers and children seeking asylum takes a heavy psychological toll.  They are at increased risk for suicide and depression, and many children become bored and restless with prolonged confinement.  The psychological toll caused women who had been held for more than nine months at Karnes to stage a hunger strike to protest their prolonged imprisonment in March and April.

These mothers have faced incredible odds to bring their children over the border to safety. Many have paid their life savings to “coyotes” — human smugglers — some of whom engage in the most brutal forms of human trafficking.  They deserve to be treated as heroes, bravely sacrificing their money, their homes, and their own lives to protect their children.  Why is the Obama Administration treating them like criminals?

Immigration lawyers and volunteers from around the country are on a mission to change that, starting one family at a time, by bonding them out of detention and into the homes of sponsors who will help them to survive as they prepare for their asylum hearings.

I am proud that Professor Kristina Campbell, her LL.M. Fellow Johan Fatemi, and a group of six law students are on a service learning trip to San Antonio to do their part to help.  Working with the nonprofit organization RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), they are going to immigration court to ask for bond reductions for their clients, so they can be released from detention and reunited with their sponsors and family members.

The larger goal, however, is to end family detention once and for all. We call on the Obama Administration to reconsider this ill-advised policy in light of the compelling nature of the Central American crisis. These families are not criminals. They are refugees seeking shelter from one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent history.