Detaining immigrant families is shameful

Photo by Eric Gay

*Correction appended

It is a gut-wrenching thing to ask a mother whether she prefers to be sent back to her country with her children, or whether she prefers to return without them, leaving them in the care of someone else. I found myself asking this question to many women during my visit to the newly opened Karnes Family Detention Center for immigrants near San Antonio last month. One mother, detained with her two sons under the age of four, burst into tears when I asked her this question, but she decided that she would prefer to be deported without them. As she sobbed, her 3-year-old tugged on her shirt, repeating “No llores, mamá” — don’t cry, mommy.    

Only five years after the Obama administration did the right thing and ended the barbaric practice of detaining families at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, we return to our shameful past. I am an immigration lawyer, and I was there for Hutto. My first Hutto client, an Iraqi Christian mother, asked me to sneak her infant daughter out of the facility with me because she couldn’t bear to see her baby suffer inside. Five years later, asylum-seeking families who come to our border in search of refuge are now being sent to one of two facilities in Artesia, New Mexico, and Karnes City, Texas. 

In a vastly different process than the unaccompanied minors from Central America, the children who arrive with their mothers join mom in a fast-track deportation process called expedited removal. In order to stop the deportation, the mothers must pass an interview with an asylum officer, telling their story and proving that they qualify for asylum under our narrow definition: Has mom suffered persecution on account of her race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and will her government not protect her? Some asylum-seekers from Central America who are fleeing indiscriminate gang violence do not qualify for asylum. But many do, and placing them in a fast-track deportation process in remote locations ensures that those who do qualify will nonetheless be sent back to severe harm or death. 

Recently, I volunteered to go out to Karnes Detention Center to help American Gateways with a Know Your Rights presentation. American Gateways is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides legal representation to Central Texas immigrants. Because family deportations are being fast-tracked, American Gateways has stepped up and is responding to the emergency by providing rights presentations using staff attorneys and volunteer attorneys like me. During our visit, I heard stories of murders, rapes, home invasions, forced gang conscription, threats to small children and entire neighborhoods abandoning their homes. Upon arrival at our borders, moms report spending up to five days in the “hieleras,” the iceboxes utilized by Customs and Border Protection before transporting asylum-seekers to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These freezing-cold cells do not have beds, mattresses or blankets, and mothers with infants and small children are held there for days, with bright fluorescent lights on them 24 hours per day. The children at Karnes are sick, with bad coughs and runny noses. 

I can only venture to guess why our administration is foregoing due process and humanity for our asylum-seekers. My guess is that there is a fear of the surge, the flood, the influx, the crisis — whatever you call it — of Central American immigrants, and a desire to send a message that you can’t come here. To this I say: Whatever you believe about who we are or who we ought to be as a nation, the United States is obligated to recognize valid claims for asylum under an international treaty we signed more than six decades ago. We are not meeting our obligation. 

Also, it does not matter that we send a message of harsh treatment and detention of families. Faced with the choice between the death of your child or family detention, what would you chose? A mother will do whatever it takes to keep her child safe. This administration’s cold-hearted policy is one for the history books.  

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a city in New Mexico. It is Artesia, not Artestia. 

Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch

Immigration lawyer