Monday, October 19, 2015
Guest blogger: Joannabelle Aquino, second-year law student, University of San Francisco
When President Obama took office, he vowed to end his predecessor’s policy of detaining migrant children. In August 2009, the DHS removed all minors from the Hutto Residential Center, a detention facility in Texas run by for-profit private prison corporation, CCA. But in response to the 2014 wave of Central American women and children arriving at the border to seek asylum, the Obama Administration reversed course. The administration adopted a “no release” policy, and announced plans to open immigrant family detention centers which, in the words of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, would deter families from fleeing to the United States and send a message that “if you come here, you should not expect to simply be released.”
The Obama Administration’s decision to place all asylum seekers in family detention centers reflects a clear refusal to acknowledge the mass migration for what it truly is: a humanitarian crisis. Instead, migrants’ efforts to escape violence and seek safety and protection for their children are essentially and unjustly criminalized. While the Obama Administration argues the detention is necessary to weed out meritless asylum claims and, such policies overregulate those who do have credible claims and callously puts them back into the very state of powerlessness and terror they are trying to escape.
The conditions of these so-called “residential centers” further cement the cruelty of such policies. The food served is often inedible, and any sort of basic healthcare is subpar, as evidenced by the hours-long wait for medical care and the need for quarantines when illnesses spread. Additionally, children in the detention centers are deprived of education, are often described as listless and depressed, and would sleep alarmingly long hours. Multiple families are often forced to sleep in tightly arranged bunk beds, and scorpions and snakes are sometimes seen around the premises. Women are forced to plead, and in some cases work in the facilities, in order to get enough sanitary pads as to not bleed through their clothes. Nursing mothers also have been refused breast pumps, which has led to fevers, pain, mastitis, and an inability to breastfeed. Throughout the months these families are detained, they are rarely, if ever, informed of their legal rights, and are forced to do their interviews in the presence of their children. In one particular case, a woman could not talk openly with the officer about the persecution her family faced because the interview was conducted with her two young sons present, one of whom was a product of rape.
Unsurprisingly, the legality of these facilities is now in question. This past summer, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee of the Central District of California ruled that ICE’s policy of detaining children for months, whether alone or with their mothers, violates a 1997 settlement agreement in Flores v. Johnson. Pursuant to that settlement, ICE must release immigrant children “without unnecessary delay” to a legal guardian or adult custodian and make “continuous efforts on its part toward family reunification.” Judge Gee also found that migrant children have been held in “widespread deplorable conditions” in Border Patrol stations after they were first detained, and she said the authorities have “wholly failed” to provide the “safe and sanitary” conditions required for children even in temporary cells.
In response to the ruling Secretary Johnson explained in a statement that the agency was working to comply with the order, though it is preserving its ability to have an appeals court review Judge Gee’s strongly worded order. However, the longer the Obama Administration continues to insist upon the necessity of these family detention centers, the closer it comes to repeating the same political mistakes committed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. This practice of locking up innocent mothers and children in an atmosphere of cruel uncertainty essentially replicates the inhumanity the Roosevelt Administration inflicted on Japanese-American families. President Roosevelt indulged anti-Japanese hysteria when he ordered the incarceration of Japanese-American families after Pearl Harbor was bombed. The Obama Administration is indulging the xenophobic attitudes of today’s anti-immigration proponents by ordering the detention of all asylum seekers, whether they come from Latin America or elsewhere.
As a nation, we cannot allow this practice to continue or to become normalized. We cannot sit idly by and watch as these gross human rights violations continue. It is long past time for the Obama administration to recognize these families for who they are: parents and children who are fleeing persecution and have a right to apply for asylum in the United States. Some families will successfully plead their cases, while others may ultimately fail and be deported. But either way, they are all deserving of a full hearing before an immigration judge, without being forced through the demoralizing ordeal of being held in detention centers for months or years at a time. The Supreme Court has made clear that absent a credible showing that a noncitizen is a danger to society, a national security threat, or poses a flight risk, prolonged detention of noncitizens is a violation of due process. So if the Obama administration truly respects due process and human rights, it must end family detention now.