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A Reflection of Our Barbarity: Jailing Immigrant Mothers and Babies

Posted on Apr 23, 2015

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  A Spanish and English welcome sign in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. (AP / Eric Gay)

Hundreds of undocumented families who have fled from poverty, violence and organized crime in Central American countries including Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are locked up in “residential centers” in Karnes County and Dilley, Texas; Berks County, Pa.; and, until recently, Artesia, N.M. The families are imprisoned while awaiting their immigration hearings.

The fact that we have “family detention” centers in the U.S. to imprison whole families, including newborns, ought to frighten the hell out of us. How we treat the most vulnerable among us is a measure of our humanity. By the yardstick that these centers offer us, we are downright barbaric.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he rightly ended the practice of family detention, which began under President George W. Bush. Hundreds of families were being held at the notorious T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former state prison in Taylor, Texas. Inside the center, which was privately run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), conditions were appalling—particularly for children, who made up half the population. The New York Times described the policy change to end family detention as “the Obama administration’s clearest departure from its predecessor’s immigration enforcement policies.”

Families apprehended at the border were once more allowed to stay with relatives in the U.S. while awaiting their court hearings for asylum and other immigration-related requests. Then, five years later, President Obama abruptly decided to resume family detention, a decision made public in an ill-timed announcement by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—on World Refugee Day in 2014. The change in policy was likely a response to the influx of unaccompanied Central American minors arriving in the U.S. last summer, which caused great controversy in Congress. Now, reported The Times, “Since June of last year, the Obama administration has upended that tradition [of allowing asylum applicants to live with family and friends]. Rather than release the families on bond to await a hearing, officials place virtually all women with children into the new detention facilities.” That includes a baby as young as 14 days old.

Like much of what the Democrats do in comparison to Republicans, brutality has a veneer of humanity. Originally called the Karnes County Civil Detention Center, the Texas prison where hundreds of women and children are locked up was recently euphemistically renamed Karnes County Residential Center. The center is run by the GEO Group, the second-largest private company after CCA operating prisons in the United States. It received a makeover to transform it from a prison into nothing more than a nicer-looking prison. Furniture is colorful and kid-friendly. A large, painted sign reading “Bienvenidos Welcome” greets people at the door. But the soft facade obscures the fact that it incarcerates mothers and babies.

Sameera Hafiz, a legislative and policy consultant with the group “We Belong Together,” has been working closely with the immigrants detained at Karnes. She explained in an interview on “Uprising” that most of the women involved in a hunger strike at Karnes in early April had “passed their credible fear interviews, so they had made an initial showing that they are eligible for asylum because they faced persecution if they are returned to their home countries.” These mothers were attempting to go through the legal process of applying for immigration status. It was only after they remained imprisoned for months under unbearable conditions that they began fasting to draw public attention.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in Texas, told me that the hunger strikers faced retaliation so severe that they were placed in solitary confinement along with their children. “Several women were rounded up as the supposed ringleaders of the fast,” Ryan said, “and they were brought into isolation rooms which were dark, in which they were kept with their children.”


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