Im­mi­grant fam­i­lies caught in the mid­dle

Ac­tivists call on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to re­lease moth­ers and chil­dren from detention cen­ters.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske and Nigel Duara molly.hen­nessy-fiske @la­ nigel.duara@la­ Hen­nessy-Fiske re­ported from Hous­ton and Duara from Tempe.

HOUS­TON — Fed­eral of­fi­cials face in­creas­ing pres­sure to stop detaining im­mi­grant fam­i­lies and re­lease more than 1,300 moth­ers and chil­dren.

At least 600 fam­i­lies — many of whom fled vi­o­lence in Cen­tral Amer­ica — were be­ing held at three fed­eral detention cen­ters, of­fi­cials said re­cently.

As of April, half had stayed there less than a month and 70% for less than two months, ac­cord­ing to a law en­force­ment of­fi­cial who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause the of­fi­cial was unau­tho­rized to speak pub­licly.

More than 4,500 in­di­vid­u­als were in fam­ily detention cen­ters from July through April, the of­fi­cial said, with 67% of them re­leased and 664 re­moved from the coun­try.

The Uni­tar­ian Univer­sal­ist Ser­vice Com­mit­tee be­came the lat­est group to call on the gov­ern­ment to end fam­ily detention. The group’s lead­ers posted a pe­ti­tion on their web­site Fri­day de­mand­ing that the direc­tor of U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment re­lease the chil­dren and moth­ers, in­clud­ing a woman who had at­tempted sui­cide and oth­ers who were preg­nant.

“Nei­ther ICE nor the pri­vate own­ers of its fam­ily detention cen­ters are ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing the lev­els of care for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple like preg­nant moth­ers that are even marginally ac­cept­able by any hu­mane, legal, moral or Amer­i­can stan­dard,” said Rachel Gore Freed, a pro­gram leader with the group who has vis­ited the Karnes City, Texas, detention cen­ter.

Of­fi­cials said a woman at the Karnes City detention cen­ter was un­der ob­ser­va­tion af­ter suf­fer­ing a wrist abra­sion, but they de­nied there had been mis­car­riages or at­tempted sui­cides.

Gil­lian Chris­tensen, an ICE spokes­woman, said the agency “takes very se­ri­ously the health, safety and wel­fare of those in our care.”

The agency “is com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that all in­di­vid­u­als housed in our fam­ily res­i­den­tial cen­ters re­ceive timely and ap­pro­pri­ate med­i­cal screen­ings and treat­ment,” in­clud­ing “preg­nancy screen­ings at ar­rival, on­site pre­na­tal care and ed­u­ca­tion, and re­mote ac­cess to spe­cial­ists for preg­nant women who re­main in cus­tody,” she said.

Some preg­nant women have been re­leased, but de­ci­sions are made on a case-by­case ba­sis, she said.

Last month, 136 Demo­cratic mem­bers of Congress called on Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Jeh John­son to stop con­fin­ing fam­i­lies. “We can­not con­tinue to hear re­ports of se­ri­ous harm to chil­dren in cus­tody and do noth­ing about it,” they said. “Detaining moth­ers and chil­dren in jail-like set­tings is not the an­swer.”

An 18-year-old court set­tle­ment is com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion. Flores vs. Meese re­quired the U.S. to re­lease mi­grant chil­dren or house them in the “least re­stric­tive en­vi­ron­ment.”

Im­mi­grant rights ad­vo­cates have sued, con­tend­ing that fam­ily detention vi­o­lated the Flores set­tle­ment.

A fed­eral judge in Los An­ge­les agreed at an April hear­ing.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Dolly Gee made a pre­lim­i­nary rul­ing that im­mi­grant chil­dren and moth­ers could not be held at un­li­censed fa­cil­i­ties such as those in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and that it was in­ap­pro­pri­ate to hold a par­ent and child un­less there was a f light or safety risk, ac­cord­ing to a memo from one of the at­tor­neys in­volved.

Gee has is­sued a gag or­der in the case, but the lat­est de­vel­op­ments are de­tailed in memos cir­cu­lated by the fam­i­lies’ at­tor­neys and a tran­script of the April 24 hear­ing.

Gee said she would not al­ter the Flores set­tle­ment, but would al­low the two sides to ne­go­ti­ate a re­vised agree­ment be­fore her fi­nal rul­ing, which could be is­sued as early as Mon­day.

Im­mi­grant rights ad­vo­cates ini­tially were op­ti­mistic that Gee’s rul­ing would help moth­ers and chil­dren win their re­lease.

“Im­mi­grant ‘ fam­ily detention’ pol­icy is gonna end,” wrote one of the at­tor­neys han­dling the case, Peter Schey, in a Face­book post af­ter the hear­ing, adding: “Court ruled the pol­icy vi­o­lates a na­tion­wide set­tle­ment we reached in the Flores case few years back. Court gave DHS [Home­land Se­cu­rity] 30 days to meet with us to fig­ure out how to end ‘fam­ily detention’ that vi­o­lates the Flores set­tle­ment which gen­er­ally lim­its detention of chil­dren to 72 hours. Will keep you posted.”

But Leon Fresco, a deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral, warned Gee that if her ini­tial rul­ing stood, it would en­cour­age the ad­min­is­tra­tion to sep­a­rate par­ents and chil­dren, turn­ing youths into “de facto un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren.”

“This isn’t a sit­u­a­tion where we want to de­tain the mother. Th­ese are sit­u­a­tions where we have to de­tain the mother” be­cause she is f light risk, he said, adding, “We’re not go­ing to re­lease the adults.”

Fresco ar­gued that the Flores agree­ment didn’t take into ac­count fam­ily detention, which be­gan in 2001, and is nec­es­sary if the par- ent is a f light risk or if chil­dren need to be kept with a par­ent for safety rea­sons.

If the Flores agree­ment means the gov­ern­ment must re­lease chil­dren with­out their par­ents, Fresco said, “the out­come of this is go­ing to be to sep­a­rate fam­i­lies, cre­ate un­cer­tainty where we don’t have un­cer­tainty now and to en­dan­ger chil­dren.”

Gee ap­peared un­moved. Fresco “is sim­ply say­ing that he thinks all hell will break loose if I is­sue my or­der and cause this whole sys­tem of res­i­den­tial cen­ters to col­lapse of its own weight,” she said.

The Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment ramped up fam­ily detention last sum­mer as more than 68,000 fam­i­lies crossed the south­ern bor­der.

In ad­di­tion to a nearly 100-bed fa­cil­ity in cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia, the agency opened three larger fam­ily detention cen­ters in Texas and New Mex­ico. The New Mex­ico cen­ter has since closed, but fed­eral of­fi­cials are ex­pand­ing the oth­ers in Karnes City and Dilley to house 3,500 de­tainees this sum­mer.

Af­ter last sum­mer’s surge, mul­ti­ple law­suits con­cern­ing fam­ily detention were filed in Cal­i­for­nia, Texas and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

This year, the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union won the re­lease on bond of some asy­lum-seek­ing moth­ers af­ter an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer or judge found they had a “cred­i­ble fear” of per­se­cu­tion at home.

In re­sponse, ICE of­fi­cials an­nounced May 14 that they would im­prove fam­ily detention con­di­tions and cre­ate a re­view process for those de­tained for more than three months. They are also ap­point­ing an in-house of­fi­cial to re­view con­di­tions at the three fam­ily detention cen­ters and a panel of ex­perts to ad­vise John­son about fam­ily detention.

A week later, Rep. Zoe Lof­gren (D-San Jose) de­liv­ered a scathing cri­tique of fam­ily detention, com­par­ing con­di­tions to what she had seen in Syr­ian refugee camps in Jor­dan.

“Jor­da­ni­ans are treat­ing refugees from Syria a heck of a lot bet­ter than we’re treat­ing im­mi­grants from Hon­duras,” she said.

Women de­tained at the Karnes City fa­cil­ity have sued and com­plained of abuse, but those claims have not been sub­stan­ti­ated by ICE and Home­land Se­cu­rity in­spec­tor gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Chris­tensen, the ICE spokes­woman, said she could not dis­cuss pending cases, but called fam­ily detention cen­ters a “hu­mane al­ter­na­tive for main­tain­ing fam­ily unity” dur­ing waits for court hear­ings.

As for the gov­ern­ment’s sug­ges­tion that it might have to re­lease chil­dren while keep­ing par­ents in cus­tody, it’s un­clear how that would work.

“Forc­ing that par­ent to choose who to give their child to seems to be over­reach­ing,” said Linda Brand­miller, a San An­to­niobased im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing five of the moth­ers.

Some de­tained moth­ers don’t have other rel­a­tives in the U.S., and oth­ers have rel­a­tives who work and would be un­able to care for the chil­dren, Brand­miller said.

A client at Karnes City, Ray­munda Pas­tor, 35, fled Gu­atemala with her 4-yearold daugh­ter in Au­gust when her hus­band was found hanged af­ter a land dis­pute.

“There’s no one to re­lease the child to” in the U.S., Brand­miller said, adding: “We al­low con­victed crim­i­nals out on bond. They would seem more of a flight risk than moms and ba­bies.”

Bob Owen San An­to­nio Ex­press-News

A WOMAN wipes away tears af­ter run­ning into a friend from a Texas im­mi­grant fam­ily detention cen­ter at a Grey­hound bus sta­tion in San An­to­nio.

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