A look in­side one de­ten­tion cen­ter

A Texas com­pound for im­mi­grants is no place for chil­dren, some crit­ics say.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy- Fiske molly. hen­nessy- fiske @ latimes. com Twit­ter: @ mol­lyhf

DIL­LEY, Texas — At the 50- acre com­pound here hold­ing hun­dreds of im­mi­grant women and chil­dren, the lights stay on 24- 7. At night they’re dimmed, but not en­tirely out. Se­cu­rity, of­fi­cials say.

The lights are among the per­sis­tent re­minders that the South Texas Fam­ily Residential Cen­ter is de­signed to keep up to 2,400 in cus­tody. Grainy black- and­white mug photos of moth­ers and chil­dren are posted in front of their doors. Even tod­dlers get ID cards.

The fa­cil­ity an hour south of San An­to­nio com­bines in­sti­tu­tional cold­ness with homey touches. It is run by a pri­vate con­trac­tor, the Cor­rec­tions Corp. of Amer­ica, which has given each “neigh­bor­hood” of 480 moth­ers and chil­dren a theme color and an­i­mal: red bird, yel­low frog, blue but­terf ly. The de­tainees stay in trail­ers, not cells, and un­like pris­on­ers, they are al­lowed to wear shoelaces, of­fi­cials note.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on Wed­nes­day an­nounced changes to its de­ten­tion poli­cies, say­ing it would al­low more fam­i­lies to be re­leased on bond. The move came af­ter protests, law­suits and a judge’s or­der that the ad­min­is­tra­tion stop us­ing fam­ily de­ten­tion as a way of de­ter­ring im­mi­grants from cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally.

More than 130 mem­bers of Congress have called on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to close the cen­ters. Some toured those in Dil­ley and Karnes City, Texas, this week and said that de­spite the ameni­ties — a chapel, sa­lon and soc­cer f ield among them — the cen­ters are pris­ons and no place for chil­dren.

A visit this month to the cen­ter in Dil­ley — the largest of three fam­ily de­ten­tion cen­ters na­tion­wide, in­clud­ing Karnes City and Leesport, Pa. — high­lighted its dual na­ture as a place of conf in­e­ment and of fam­ily life. The av­er­age age of a child here is 9. In the li­brary, small chil­dren f lipped through di­nosaur and Hello Kitty books, while across the car­peted room teenagers played video games.

Dil­ley opened in De­cem­ber with space for 480, and ex­panded by April to house up to 2,400 with a staff of nearly 700, in­clud­ing teach­ers, pe­di­a­tri­cians and psy­chi­a­trists — al­most as big as the sur­round­ing town of 3,600. As of June 12, it held 1,735 in­di­vid­u­als, about 1,000 of them chil­dren.

In the pre- K class, chil­dren sat sur­rounded by bright posters and word and num­ber cards in Span­ish and English. Stu­dents played count­ing games on com­put­ers, while class­mates col­ored, played with f ire­fighter f ig­urines and f lipped through books.

In a nearby mid­dle school class­room, older chil­dren gath­ered around a ta­ble for an English les­son. A teacher asked them to spell two English words: “Very bad.”

One of the boys made a face, frus­trated.

The teacher pa­tiently wrote the words on a white board, then asked her stu­dents to trans­late. Another boy vol­un­teered, cor­rectly: “Muy mal.”

In another trailer, 45 women lis­tened with their chil­dren to a man from the cen­ter’s le­gal ori­en­ta­tion pro­gram. Some have only a few years of ed­u­ca­tion, speak in­dige­nous lan­guages and can­not read.

“Who has a lawyer?” he asked in Span­ish.

Half a dozen raised their hands. In the na­tion’s ad­min­is­tra­tive immigration courts, run by the Jus­tice Depart­ment, there are no public de­fend­ers. Lawyers are not guar­an­teed, even for chil­dren.

One who se­cured a lawyer was Alba Veron­ica Cruz Montano, a 32- year- old from El Salvador, and on this day she faced her fi­nal immigration hear­ing. She had been de­ported be­fore, in 2010. She and her 3- year- old daugh­ter, Va­le­ria Ni­cole Es­co­bar Cruz, had been held at the cen­ter for 21⁄ months.

Af­ter they en­tered the U. S., an agent with Immigration and Cus­toms En­force­ment, or ICE, found she had a “rea­son­able fear” of re­turn­ing home be­cause her boyfriend had abused her and her daugh­ter. But they had to face off against a Jus­tice Depart­ment lawyer and per­suade the judge.

She had re­viewed her story with her at­tor­ney, Brian Hoff­man, an Ohio- based lawyer who has been co­or­di­nat­ing cases here for CARA Fam­ily De­ten­tion Pro Bono Pro­ject, spon­sored by sev­eral immigration lawyers’ groups. She was seek­ing asy­lum for her daugh­ter and de­ferred re­moval for her­self, and per­mis­sion to stay and work legally.

In a win­dow­less trailer court­room, she and Hoff­man ap­peared in a tele­con­fer­ence with Judge Lour­des de Jongh in Mi­ami. The high de­mand has meant judges from other ju­ris­dic­tions hear cases from Dil­ley. Va­le­ria waited out­side.

“You’re go­ing to be telling me your story,” De Jongh said.

Cruz nod­ded. Hoff­man said Cruz had twice been a vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Af­ter she ar­rived in the U. S. the f irst time in 2004, Cruz met a boyfriend in Carmel, N. Y., who beat her. “He used to drink a lot, and with so much al­co­hol in his head, he used to say the devil was telling him to kill me,” she said. He threat­ened to stab her with a knife, fol­lowed her to work and shat­tered her car win­dows. Hoff­man of­fered a po­lice re­port as cor­rob­o­ra­tion.

Af­ter she re­turned to El Salvador, she met a new boyfriend, got preg­nant with her daugh­ter and moved in with him. He was nice at first, but once the baby was born, he re­fused to give her more than $ 5 a day un­less she had sex with him.

“She didn’t want to go to the po­lice in El Salvador be­cause hav­ing gone to the po­lice in the U. S., she knew it could es­ca­late the abuse,” Hoff­man ex­plained.

With an in­ter­preter trans­lat­ing his ques­tions into Span­ish, Hoff­man asked whether Cruz had ever re­sisted hav­ing sex with her boyfriend.

“Yes,” she said. “He would yank me and pull my clothes and tell me he would have sex with me by force.”

“How would he threaten you?” Hoff­man said.

“That he would take Va­le­ria away.… He would tell me that if I left, I would leave alone. … He knew that I would never leave my daugh­ter be­hind,” she said.

At the same time, Cruz said her boyfriend would abuse their daugh­ter: scream­ing at her, yank­ing her and slam­ming her down in a chair.

Af­ter she re­turned to the U. S. in March, Cruz said the boyfriend had tried to con­tact her through Face­book and her grand­mother. If she re­turned to El Salvador, she said, he would come find her.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment at­tor­ney asked Cruz whether she told rel­a­tives about the abuse. Not many, she said. “I would tell his mother what was hap­pen­ing, and she would say, ‘ In or­der to have a home, you have to put up with it,’ ” she said.

The gov­ern­ment at­tor­ney asked how much she paid a smug­gler to come to the U. S. this time, cross­ing the Rio Grande from Ci­u­dad Acuna, Mexico. Cruz said $ 5,000. Rel­a­tives helped raise the money.

The judge lis­tened sym­pa­thet­i­cally, and when Cruz emerged from the makeshift court­room, she scooped up Va­le­ria and ex­claimed, “We won!” They were re­leased later that day to stay with an aunt and un­cle in Hous­ton.

But for many fam­i­lies, the wait at the South Texas Fam­ily Residential Cen­ter con­tin­ued.

Molly Hen­nessy- Fiske Los An­ge­les Times

ALBA VERON­ICA Cruz Montano and daugh­ter Va­le­ria Ni­cole Es­co­bar Cruz were held at the Dil­ley, Texas, cen­ter for 21⁄ months. Cruz told a judge about abuse she suf­fered in El Salvador at the hands of her boyfriend.

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