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Family Detention is a Breeding Ground for Abuse and Mistreatment



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  • Christopher Cardinale
  • Christopher Cardinale

Seeking Help, Immediately Detained

Maria, who worked at a clothing factory in Honduras, was threatened by the infamous Mara Salvatrucha gang after her son's father, whom she is no longer married to, became a target. When gang members couldn't find her ex-husband, they tracked down her and her then 8-year-old son. One day, as she was coming home, two men in masks approached the taxi she was riding in. The men warned that if she didn't turn over her son, they would find a way to kill him and her as well.

Before this summer's family detention policy was expanded, women and children who passed both an initial border-patrol interview and the so-called "credible-fear interview"—successfully demonstrating to an asylum officer that they have reason to fear returning home—were often able to remain with relatives, family friends or in other non-detention settings while their asylum cases worked their way through immigration court.

Now, advocates and lawyers report that the screening process is too hasty, producing flimsy results and putting women and children who suffered great trauma in confusing and impersonal situations—especially those who don't speak English. Evidence suggests that families aren't properly referred for a credible-fear interview until after they are detained, according to lawyers and the Women's Refugee Commission and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services organization.

Such was the case with Maria, who arrived at the border with her son on July 31. Her initial border-patrol interview included no real details about her reasons for fleeing to the United States. She was given a notice of removal, and she and her son were ultimately detained at Karnes on August 8. It wasn't until weeks later that an asylum officer conducted a more in-depth interview and determined that she and her son had a credible fear of torture back in Honduras.

Most women incarcerated at Karnes are like Maria and asylum officers believe they have strong asylum claims. Data outlined in the Women's Refugee Commission and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service report show 98 percent of families detained at Karnes would likely qualify for asylum. As of July, more than half of the families detained in Artesia had expressed fear of returning to their home countries. The report also explains that 1,050 children detained at the three operating facilities are under the age of 18 and more than half of them are 6 or younger.

In addition to expanding detention, the federal government seems to be making it as hard as possible for women and their children to be released while their cases work their way through court.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), has been representing women and children detained at the Karnes facility since early August. In each case for which he and other RAICES attorneys have filed bond requests, the federal government's lawyers have filed a 50-page packet of documents arguing that allowing the release of families with pending asylum claims will only motivate others to come to the U.S.

Nina Pruneda, San Antonio-based spokesperson for ICE, said bond decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, "based on considerations of risk of flight and public safety."

In the last few weeks, Ryan and other lawyers have successfully secured lower bond amounts for some clients detained at Karnes, including a $3,000 bond for Maria. "The crux of our argument is that, one, these women are not threats to the community or to our country; and two, that they will appear in court," he said.

Some 10 weeks after they were detained at Karnes, Maria and her son were reunited with her uncle in Maryland. Now, about one month later, the federal government has filed paperwork to appeal their bond. In addition to the bond appeals, Ryan has also noticed that bond requests are more heavily scrutinized with each week that passes.

"It's all part of an attempt to prevent these women's stories from being heard, to keep their faces from being seen," he said.

Hope from the Highest Immigration Court

While the Obama administration has made the expansion of family detention centers a priority, the Board of Immigration Appeals issued a landmark ruling 20 years in the making that could have a profound effect on some of the migrant women detained by ICE.

In late August, the BIA recognized domestic violence as a valid asylum claim, giving women who have suffered abuse at the hand of their intimate partners a better chance at seeking protection in the United States. Women fleeing violent partners are now recognized as members of a "particular social group," one of the five grounds for asylum. The decision resolved a decades-old case involving a woman from Guatemala who applied for asylum after being abused by her partner.

"What the decision means is that it puts women who have suffered domestic violence on solid legal ground for asylum," said Lisa Frydman, of the University of California-Hastings Law School's Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.

While the government doesn't keep data on the specific types of asylum claims moving through lower immigration courts, Frydman said that 300 domestic-violence asylum cases were pending in the BIA before it reached its August decision. For the women detained at Artesia and Karnes, the ruling will have an impact.

"We have heard that a significant percentage of the women, the mothers, at Karnes and Artesia have fled situations of domestic violence," Frydman said.

The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies has been working with lawyers representing women in Artesia and, according to Frydman, all six domestic-violence-based asylum cases have been granted.

Denise Gilman, co-director of UT's Immigration Clinic, has been coordinating a network of pro-bono lawyers to help women detained at Karnes. She said about 30 to 40 percent of the cases she's seen likely involve domestic or partner-based violence, including at least two of the eight cases taken up by the clinic.

"It's hard to pin down numbers because, unfortunately, one of the problems with Karnes is that we're not able to reach women and children detained there for representation," she said. "In our broader network of pro-bono attorneys who have been trying to provide representation to women and children, there are definitely a number of additional domestic-violence cases that involve horrific abuse by partners against the women who are seeking asylum and detained at Karnes."

While it's hard to know how many detained women have domestic-violence-based asylum cases, the ruling did help the first family gain asylum and leave Karnes in late October, which wouldn't have been possible without the BIA decision. According to the family's lawyer, RAICES attorney John Blatz, the mother of two was brutally beaten, raped and sexually abused at the age of 14 by a man who eventually became her husband, and she lived in fear with him for 20 years. He left the country for almost a decade, and when he returned, he threatened her again, so she fled.

"It was pretty awful domestic violence," he said. Her asylum case "would've been long and drawn out because they had not ruled on it...once [the BIA decision] came out, it was much more of a possibility."

Blatz told the Current that the mother and her two children have been released from Karnes and have reunited with family in Atlanta.

The Community Responds

As lawyers on the ground in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and other states are stepping in to represent detained women and children, international and national advocacy groups and some lawmakers are calling for a major policy change. Dozens of groups are urging the Obama administration to rely on "alternatives to detention," including community support programs, release on parole or bond or periodic check-ins with a detention officer.

Other organizations are prepared to pursue litigation should the situation escalate and allegations of abuse continue. The ACLU, the American Immigration Council and other immigration lawyers have already sued the Department of Homeland Security for the release of the policies and procedures used to operate the Artesia facility, which advocates say was opened too hastily. Back at Karnes, Hines says the Office of the Inspector General is investigating the sexual-assault allegations detailed in the October complaint.

RAICES, which has offices in San Antonio and Austin, has started an online fundraising campaign in partnership with the UT Immigration Law Clinic and local law firm Akin & Gump to help families make their bond payments. So far, the fund has paid for the release of three families. The organizations hope to raise a total of $150,000 by the end of the year. RAICES is also working with San Antonio families who have volunteered to open their homes to migrant families released on bond through what they've dubbed the "Welcome Home" program.

As lawyers and advocates fight for families in court and through grassroots outreach, there's a bigger question that can't go unmentioned.

"Using moms and children for a supposed deterrent policy is wrong; women are going to come anyway," Hines said. "They're coming because they're looking for a safe haven. We need to start looking at why people come and what's really going on in Central America."

*(At her request, and at the request of her attorney, Maria's real name has been changed. Her asylum application was shared with the Current with her permission.)

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