Detaining immigrant families was always wrong, and we're still doing it
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Two years ago, I wrote a piece for this same publication in which I decried the U.S. government’s policy of detaining in prison-like facilities migrant women and children from Central America who had made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border to ask for asylum.

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I never imagined that two years later, my country would still be operating baby jails (especially after the federal district court in Washington, D.C. specifically ruled in February 2015 that the government cannot use detention as a means to deter people from asking for asylum at our border, and the Ninth Circuit ruled in July 2016 that child migrants detained with parents should be released).  

But when I spent the last week of October 2016 as a volunteer lawyer at a detention camp for immigrant families in Texas, I was hopeful that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton trolls Trump with mock letter from JFK to Khrushchev Trump-Graham relationship tested by week of public sparring Sunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision MORE would soon fulfill her pledge to end family detention.  Now, with the election of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE, I fear that the appalling practice of detaining immigrant families will continue to grow.

The rampant violence, corruption and societal breakdown in the three countries that make up Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have made these three of the five most murderous countries in the world, according to the United Nations.

This led to the 2014  “surge” of both unaccompanied minors and of families (especially mothers with young children) arriving at our southern border.

After closing a makeshift detention center in Artesia, N.M., in December 2014, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opened up two much larger detention facilities in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. A smaller family detention center was already in operation in Berks County, Pa. The facilities in Dilley and Karnes are multimillion dollar money-making operation outsourced to private for-profit prison companies. 

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During the week I spent with a team of colleagues from the Fragomen law firm volunteering at the misleadingly-named South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, we helped women prepare for their interviews with Asylum Officers.

Unfortunately, volunteer attorneys are only able to meet with a fraction of the 1,000-2,000 women confined in Dilley at any given time.

Every single woman I and my colleagues met with had suffered either horrific domestic violence, sexual assault, extortion by criminal groups, death threats, murders of family members, attempted forced recruitment of their children into criminal gangs or some combination of the above.

They all indicated they received no protection from local police, who are themselves often corrupt or directly complicit in the rampant criminality that is pushing these good people to flee for their lives.  

I met with women whose neighborhoods were ruled by gangs and who had to pay bribes to be allowed to visit family members in another neighborhood. I spoke with women whose sons had been targeted for recruitment by gangs at age 10, or whose adolescent daughters had been given the choice between becoming a gang member’s “girlfriend” or facing certain death.

One woman had been getting death threats via text message, which she couldn’t read since she was illiterate, so she had to ask her young son to read them to her.

Another woman I spoke with actually called the police — even though she feared the police as much as she feared the local criminal element — when gang members seeking to conscript her son surrounded the house in the middle of the night and banged relentlessly on all the doors and windows. When I asked why she was so afraid to call the police, she said, “Because usually when people call the police, the next day you find their dead body.” 

But just as shocking as what these women were fleeing, and the hardships they endured on the journey overland from Central America to the U.S. border, was what met them when they turned themselves in to  U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities.

Every woman I and my colleagues met with told us of appalling conditions they experienced in the hieleras—the “iceboxes” or “freezers”—where they and their children were held for as long as five days. As a class action lawsuit against CBP has revealed, hieleras are concrete holding cells, kept artificially cold, where families are forced to sleep on the floor with only thin foil blankets.

Food consists of two small sandwiches per day. Once they are released from the hieleras, these families are usually kept for another day or two in holding pens they call perreras, because they resemble dog kennels, before being transferred to the detention facilities in Dilley or Karnes.

The family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes are run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, respectively.  Compared to the hieleras and perreras, the conditions I saw during my volunteer week in Dilley are certainly more humane, although the lack of adequate medical care in both facilities is a serious concern.

We met a woman in Dilley whose young child was suffering from cancer, which was obviously not being treated while they were in detention. Another woman had diabetes, also untreated.

It is heartbreaking to see even healthy mothers with children ranging from infants to teenagers confined against their will, in a 50-acre desert landscape dotted with trailers and cabins that is reminiscent of the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were detained during another dark period for civil liberties in our country.  

In contrast to the Department of Justice’s recent announcement that it will end the use of private prisons, DHS just extended its contract with CCA for another five years. CCA stocks had tumbled in value after the DOJ announcement, but started climbing up again in the wake of DHS’ decision. Oh, and CCA has also rebranded itself. It is now called CoreCivic — just in case you failed to appreciate the civic-mindedness of its core business.

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Kris Kobach is serving on Donald Trump’s transition team as an advisor on immigration policy; he is a notorious immigration hard-liner whose day job is to serve as the state of Kansas’ Secretary of State, and was famously a driving force behind Arizona’s restrictionist SB 1070 immigration enforcement law.

Private prison companies were reportedly instrumental in the drafting of that legislation. It thus does not require a stretch of the imagination to envision a booming future in the field of immigration detention under a Trump administration.  Not coincidentally, the stock values of both CCA and the GEO Group have risen even more in the wake of Trump’s election.

Detaining foreign nationals seeking asylum is cruel, costly, counterproductive, and just plain wrong.

Putting immigrant families in detention centers is doubly cruel, and could become more inhumane if such centers are expanded to operate on a larger scale. The fact that there is money to be made in the business of family detention just adds insult to injury.

These are not “illegals.” These are not terrorists. These are not people “simply” seeking a better life. These are vulnerable, humble, hard-working people who had no choice but to flee from violent forces from which their home countries’ governments are unable or unwilling to protect them.

For shame, America.

Shannon is a Partner at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP. She provided pro bono legal services at the immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas under the auspices of the CARA Project.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.