On Mother’s Day, hundreds of women and children were housed in metal trailers surrounded by high fences, tired and discouraged with dark circles under their eyes — signs of the trauma they fled in their home countries and the trauma they now experience as they are met with punishment at the border.
The fence surrounding these trailers is meant to keep these women and children in these family detention centers, to prevent them from fleeing yet again. As a result, these women and children are again trapped in a state of fear.
These detention centers or camps are not by law considered prisons, but they sure seem like prisons. These family detention centers are the United States’ response to an influx of refugee children and families from Central America, and federal policy on detention has made it more common to detain families seeking asylum while their cases are being processed. At the same time, the country’s militaristic response to the influx of brave women and children fleeing violence and suffering in their own countries has proven that the U.S. has yet to develop a working immigration system able to effectively and humanely process these brave and vulnerable individuals.
These family detention centers are not widely spoken about. Many Americans today are broadly familiar with immigration and asylum conversations, but very few are speaking about the sparse medical services, virtually nonexistent mental health services and legal services that asylum seekers receive, and about the overall inhumane and unjust conditions of family detention centers. Very few people seem to be speaking about the valid reasons why individuals flee their countries — such as the explosion of violence in Central America in the form of war, cartels, extortion and even gangs that routinely demand money on threat of death and sometimes kidnap young boys to serve as soldiers and young girls as sexual slaves. Few people are aware of the valid and threatening reasons as to why these women and children are fleeing their countries or that the American asylum system, instead of providing safety and security, creates more chaos in their lives through its unjust establishment and continuance of detention centers.
This is why, as the Columbia University Women in Law and Politics and Columbia University Anti-Carceral Committee, we decided to use our privilege as university students at an elite institution to raise awareness of the injustices that occur every day in these detention centers. Students were encouraged to write Mother’s Day letters to women detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley to encourage them to stay strong and look toward a hopeful future. Some of these letters highlighted the importance of the sacrifices these women made to protect their families, and the inspiration they are to many. Some of these letters (translated from the original Spanish) read,
"I want you to know that the sacrifices you have made to protect your family, your kids, and yourself, are really an inspiration for many women like you, who also want their loved ones to be safe and well. Your acts are filled with courage and light, you are a necessary piece in this world, and we need the strength of your heart to keep fighting."
Renata Del Riego, Columbia College ‘20
The letters sought to assure women in detention of their humanity, their importance to the world and their admirable valor. They encouraged students to reflect on how they could change the narrative of these women, whether through volunteering for the Dilley Pro Bono Project or by writing simple letters to remind these women that there are people outside the fences that entrap them, fiercely fighting for their human rights.
We stand in solidarity with women and children in detention, and vow to raise as much awareness as we can on this issue. When we incarcerate mothers, we incarcerate their families, their dreams and their aspirations for a better life. Detention is not the solution, and we have taken it upon ourselves to help more people understand that.