New Hope for Refugee Families in Detention Camps

July 9, 2015

Perhaps you recall my post on the detention centers that the immigration authorities are warehousing immigrant families in. Or perhaps you’ve read about them elsewhere.

They gotten some good media coverage. So the families — mostly mothers with young children who’ve fled violence in their countries — are out of the shadows now. But not out of the detention camps.

A letter national organizations recently sent to the President says that his administration has nearly 3,700 beds in the camps — a 4,300% increase (not a typo) from only a year ago. Highly doubtful the Department of Homeland Security would pay for so many beds if it thought most would be empty.

Some of the incarcerated families soon could have a chance to live with relatives, friends or in housing provided by faith-based groups while they await a final decision on their requests for asylum.

In late April, a federal judge issued a tentative ruling in favor of plaintiffs, who claimed that wholesale family detention violates a settlement the government agreed to long ago.

It obliges DHS to place minors in “the least restrictive setting possible.” The judge reportedly has interpreted this to mean that children — and their parents — can’t be held in detention camps unless they’re likely to flee or pose a risk to public safety.

DHS apparently read the handwriting on the wall. The Secretary recently announced “substantial changes” in the department’s practices. These include reviews of cases where families have been detained for more than 90 days to decide whether further detention is warranted.

Another change provides for the release of families who’ve persuaded the authorities they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries, i.e. are over the threshold to a decision on whether they can remain here indefinitely.

Families may, however, have to post bonds — much as people charged with crimes must post bonds to ensure they’ll show up for trial (or remain in jail or prison).

DHS has offered some detained families the bond option for awhile, but the amounts have been more than most could come up with — as high as $15,000. DHS will now supposedly take account of ability to pay.

But recall bonds are only for families who’ve passed the first major screening test. And advocates have said they’re unnecessary because virtually all families who’ve been released — as most used to be — show up for their hearings regardless.

So steps in the right direction. But still families held in those camps. And children damaged, perhaps irreparably.

How our government treats families who’ve fled from imminent dangers is ultimately the President’s call because what DHS does — and doesn’t — reflects his strategy on broader immigration issues.

Basically, I think, he will have to decide whether to continue trying to persuade recalcitrant Republicans to work with him on immigration reform. Perhaps he already has.

One notes, for example, his in-your-face expansion of reprieves from deportation for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children, as well as somewhat similar reprieves for undocumented parents whose children were born here or have since gained legal status.

Perhaps the recently reported (though not new) targeting of deportation actions belongs in this category too.

But if the President’s really given up, then it’s hard to see why the administration persists in stressing and re-stressing vigilance at our borders — at least insofar as penned-up refugee families are offered up as proof.

More broadly, it’s hard to see why the administration seems so bound and determined to prove that House Republicans are wrong when they claim they can’t trust him to enforce a new immigration law — the latest in a litany of excuses for their refusal to tackle a difficult and divisive issue.

Not saying the administration should just roll out the welcome mat to all tired, hungry and poor people seeking a better life here. Our country decided against that in the late 19th century.

But people who’ve every reason to fear death, rape and other violence shouldn’t suffer more because our leaders want to deliver a message to others who might also throw themselves on our tender mercies, rather than dutifully line up at a consulate back home.

Nor should they be made pawns in a political game that looks for all the world like a no-win till at least some time after the next election.

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New Hope for Some Refugee Families Held in Detention Camps

February 25, 2015

After I published my post on our government’s detention camps, I discovered that a federal court had recently issued a preliminary injunction that should provide relief for some of the incarcerated families.

Those who’ll benefit are mothers and children who’ve already passed the first test for gaining asylum, i.e., a hearing officer’s decision that they have “a credible fear” of persecution or torture in their home countries.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has been routinely holding them in the camps, rather than releasing them on bond or some other condition intended to ensure they attend their next hearing.

The government’s lawyers argued that keeping virtually all the families locked up was necessary in order to deter others from crossing the border. Alleged that “an absence of deterrence” would pose a threat to national security.

The judge wouldn’t buy that. We’re talking here about tired, hungry, poor — and fearful — mothers and children after all. This is one, though not the only reason he enjoined blanket detention until further notice.

So at least for the time being, ICE will have to revert to its prior policy of deciding, on a case-by-case basis, whether releasing families would post a risk to the community or of flight, which I assume means managing to elude capture if they don’t show up for their hearings.

A preliminary injunction means that the judge believes that the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit, is more likely than not to win the case.

This will, so far as I can see, do nothing for the families who haven’t passed the “credible fear” test — and may fail simply because they don’t have a lawyer to represent them. But it’s still a piece of good news in what’s very bad-news situation.


Shoutrage at Refugee Family Detention Camps

February 23, 2015

We interrupt this stream of semi-wonkish posts to bring you a burst of shoutrage — a coined word I’ve been looking for an occasion to use ever since I found it nearly a year ago in The New York Times Sunday magazine.

The magazine has now provided the occasion — an intensively-researched story about “the shame of America’s detention camps.” If you haven’t read it, you truly should, unless you want to spare yourself a sense of outrage and a sinking feeling that shouting about it won’t spur the reforms needed to end the shame.

A brief overview nonetheless so you’ll see what you’re in for — and why I felt compelled to veer from my usual topics.

The shameful detention camps are where our federal government is holding hundreds of families who’ve come to this country seeking refuge from death threats, rape (threatened and committed) and other violence perpetrated by gangs in several Central American countries.

They’re packed into these facilities, sometimes eight to a room. Needless to say, communicable diseases spread. This is especially the case because many children won’t eat the food that’s served — at least in part because it’s so different from what they’re used to.

“The first time I went in,” said a paralegal, “all I could hear was a symphony of coughing and sneezing and crying and wailing.”

Children who aren’t too young or too debilitated to benefit from education don’t get regular schooling, though they’re legally entitled to it, as well as medical care, exercise and housing in “the least restrictive environment possible.”

The families are held in the detention camps until they can get a hearing to determine whether a further hearing might find they are indeed refugees eligible to remain in this country. They’ve no attorneys to represent them, unless they’re one of the relative few whom volunteers can serve.

The rest, of course, have no idea how to answer the judge’s questions so as to ping the legal criteria. And they’ve got to ping them quickly because judges swift them through the process. Those who luck out may not know they have because only the judge’s questions are translated.

Most who are in the hearing room on their own don’t luck out. One judge reportedly has denied an average of 91.6% of asylum requests.

Children sent back to Honduras “just return to die,” said a morgue operator there. And that’s true not only for Honduras. Ten children were killed after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency flew them back to El Salvador.

What’s become of the parents who were shipped back is perhaps unknowable. But it’s clear that families who’ve asked our government for a chance to live safely are routinely denied due process in what are effectively death penalty cases.

My late husband Jesse and I had an expression we’d use when talking, as we so often did, about policies that distressed us. “Bad Rs.” I’d like to say that now, but I can’t.

True, lead Republicans in Congress have said they won’t do anything to reform our outdated immigration system until our borders are secure — and the President is enforcing the existing laws, as they understand them.

Also true that they made a huge deal about all those Central American children crossing the border and blamed the President because he’d allowed some children who were already in this country to remain.

And it was the Bush administration that first claimed it wasn’t legally bound by a long-standing court settlement to favor release over incarceration whenever refugee children were involved. Only, it said, when they weren’t accompanied by parents.

But it was the Obama administration that made the same argument — earning a smack-down from the judge, as the Bush administration had.

It’s the Obama administration that decided to resume detention as a routine response to families seeking refuge. It’s the Obama administration that’s running the camps, overseeing the court system and shipping thousands back to dangers they’d fled.

“Our message to this group is simple,” the Secretary of Homeland Security testified last July. “We will send you back.” No evident concern about to what.

One infers from the Times story that the ICE doesn’t much like those volunteer attorney/advocates gumming up the wheels of injustice — nor journalists investigating the camps.

Neither a lead attorney nor the correspondent who wrote the story could get permission to tour the camp where they’d temporarily settled in. The latter cites two related instances when ICE basically stonewalled questions about the school issue.

Well, a fair amount of the shameful business is public now, including angles I haven’t even touched on. One would like to think there’d be shoutrage where it would make a difference. Not holding my breath.

UPDATE: Now there’s a ray of hope for some of the detained families. You can learn about it here.