Detention: No Place for Children or Families
Wendy Cervantes (Former Staff)Children of Immigrants
Over the past few weeks the stories of child refugees fleeing unspeakable violence in Central America, as well as their uncertain fate in the hands of U.S. policymakers, has been the focus of headlines around the country. What has been more difficult to follow is what is happening to the influx of refugee mothers who have recently fled to the U.S. with their children, many just toddlers and babies.
I went down to Artesia, New Mexico last week to see for myself what has become of these vulnerable families. What I found brought me to tears. Mothers and their children are being hidden away, held in inappropriate detention facilities without access to adequate services, medical care, or legal counsel. And they are being deported in the middle of the night without warning and without the opportunity to a fair hearing.
I was able to speak first-hand with several of the moms, all who shared their feelings of anxiety and hopelessness. I could see the fear and desperation in their eyes. Many of the moms are young and some have been recently widowed, with painful stories of domestic abuse and wide-spread violence driven by drug cartels and gangs. Their stories reflect what the research has consistently documented: increasing rates of gender-based violence in Central America, where rape is now a common fate for women and girls as young as 8-years-old. In fact, in Honduras, gender-based violence is now the second highest cause of death for women of reproductive age. And yes, while these mothers themselves were targets of violence in their home communities, what ultimately drove these mothers to flee was not their own safety. They were fleeing for the sake of their children, many of whom were just too little to make the journey on their own.
The Artesia family detention center was opened earlier this month to hold mothers and their children. It is located in an extremely isolated area, a four-hour drive from the nearest major city. With over 600 beds, it is now at capacity and a similar facility is scheduled to open in Karnes City, Texas in August. The average age of a child in the Artesia facility is 6 years old. As I toured the facility, I saw many of them. One 4-year-old girl was taking a nap in a bottom bunk as other kids ran around with a single, barely functioning remote-controlled car. Two boys, no older than 7-years-old, were walking around with a trashcan picking up litter because there was nothing else to do. Another toddler with big brown eyes in a Hello Kitty top held my hand tightly while I interviewed her mother, and another teen told me about her inability to sleep because she was so worried about what was going to happen to her and her family.
After speaking to mothers and staff, it was clear that children were exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety, even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many mothers noted that their children had lost weight since arriving at the center, many not eating, not sleeping well, and crying more than normal.
One mother, Carla, told me her story while weeping, her two-year old daughter wiping her mother’s tears with visible concern on her round face. Carla fled Guatemala City after her husband was murdered. Once apprehended by Border Patrol, she and her daughter were held in a freezing, crowded cell and she was denied a blanket for her daughter. Carla had to remove her own t-shirt just to try to keep her daughter warm. She suffered the same conditions when she was transferred to Arizona, where officers laughed and insulted both her and her daughter, calling them “poor” and other names. When we met, Carla told me that her daughter had been suffering from severe diarrhea for more than five days, and that the doctor insisted she just keep giving her more water. In fact, all of the mothers I spoke to informed me that their children were suffering from some sort of dietary issue, whether it was diarrhea, not eating, or losing weight. I was told over and over again, “there is no medicine here, just water.” Carla said she had to beg for more than 24 hours just to get a diaper for her daughter.
These are just some of the observations from my visit, and it all points to what research has told us time and again about the harmful impacts of institutional settings on children. For instance, the research has consistently shown that children have better outcomes across the board—health, psychological, academic—when they are placed in community-based care rather than group homes or other institutional settings. Children do better when they are in a stable home, are able to develop a relationship with a caring and loving adult, are free to move around, and have consistent access to educational programs and recreational activities.
I should note that there is a big distinction between having access to a caring, supportive adult in a home setting versus a detention facility. While a parent may technically be present in family detention centers, the conditions of confinement and a parent’s limited power to parent their children all have adverse impacts not just on the child, but on the parent-child relationship. In fact, studies on family detention have shown that both parents and children frequently view staff as the ones who have control in these settings, sometimes even in disciplining children. It is important for children to feel safe, and children primarily look to their parents to provide them protection so that they feel safe. Yet, in detention settings, children actually watch their parents lose power. They see the way that their parents are humiliated either through direct insults or by being refused simple requests—like access to drinking water or to use the restroom. Often, children lose respect for their parents, feel resentment and anger towards them, and ultimately lose their sense of security.
Research also shows that maternal depression has a significant impact on children, which can worsen when mothers are exposed to environmental stressors. In Artesia, feelings of depression and anxiety were very prevalent among the women and children I spoke to, primarily because no one I spoke to seemed to have a clear sense of what was going to happen to them. Carla mentioned that some of her fellow residents had been deported just that morning, and many people seemed confused about what the future held for them. In fact, Carla told me, “I have no idea how long we’re here, if anyone will help me, what will become of us. I’m even more afraid of what will become of us if we go back. I know I will die. And what scares me most, is then what will become of my little girl?”
Even more terrible than the conditions at Artesia, which fall sorely short of meeting the needs of both mothers and their children, are the fast-track deportations and lack of due process. During my visit, several of the women noted that they were unaware of access to pro bono legal counsel. Women who express fear to detention staff are given a list of names and 48 hours to locate counsel, with little guidance on how to do so and very little access to phones to make such calls. We were informed by officers at the facility that three individuals had been removed at the last minute from a deportation plane that very morning when they happened to mention to Guatemalan consular officials prior to boarding that they were afraid to go back. Had these women and children been properly screened at any point in their process, they would never have been on that flight in the first place.
As someone who has worked on children’s issues for many years now, I left Artesia completely convinced that family detention is absolutely the wrong policy for women and children. In fact, I’m not alone in this conclusion: the Obama Administration recognized that such settings were inappropriate when they shut down the Hutto family detention center in Texas in 2009 and ended the practice of detaining families. To return to such a policy simply to “send a message” to mothers in Central America that they will not find refuge in our country is both misguided and heartless. And to punish mothers for doing what any mother would do to save her child’s life undermines our nation’s family values.
Therefore, I’m joining many other advocates in calling for a halt to deportations at the Artesia center until we can ensure that all women and children are being appropriately screened and provided with due process. Furthermore, the Administration should close the Artesia center and stop any future plans for expanding family detention. Instead, effective and cost-efficient alternatives to detention should be used on mothers with children as they await the outcome of their removal proceeding. These alternative methods would help minimize further trauma and enable moms to care for their children in a healthy, home setting.
I will never forget the desperation I saw in the eyes of women and children in Artesia. And I hope that mothers, sisters, and daughters across the country open their hearts to these mothers, children, and babies rather than turn a blind eye to their pain.
To sign on to We Belong Together’s petition opposing family detention, click here.