Hundreds of refugee women and children were sheltered at San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship church last week
Asylum-seeking families, recently released from a couple of South Texas immigrant detention centers, kept showing up at San Antonio's bus station at all hours of the night with basically no resources and no idea what to do next. That's why Raices, a San Antonio nonprofit that provides legal assistance and other help to refugees, created its emergency shelter program (called "Casa de Raices") for asylum seekers last year. Immigrants usually stay at the shelter for just up to 48 hours – enough time to decompress, sleep, have a warm meal, and figure out where to go next.
But then, on December 4, Raices sent out an unusual cry for help: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had dropped off nearly 500 refugee women and children
, most of them fleeing raging violence in Central America, on San Antonio's doorstep. The Raices shelter was overwhelmed, and the organization had run out of places to house the refugees. Hundreds were shuttled to the San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship Church in Southtown, where they slept in pews or on the floor or on donated mattresses, many of them wearing donated clothing. It was a chaotic scene for nearly three days as busloads of refugees kept coming. People compared it to a modern day, no-room-at-the-inn nativity scene.
Local attorneys, elected officials and immigrant rights advocates gathered on Saturday for a post-mortem, to discuss why the feds dumped hundreds of refugees here seemingly overnight, and what the episode reveals about the way the feds are handling the growing refugee crisis on the southwest border.
Amy Fischer, Raices' policy director, told a crowd gathered at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center Saturday that the feds have essentially tried to detain and deport their way out of "an international humanitarian crisis." As we've noted in the past,
most of the women and children who end up in so-called "family detention" centers in the small South Texas towns of Karnes and Dilley, both of which are run by private prison corporations, have fled unimaginable violence in the "Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Advocates estimate that some 80 percent of women are sexually assaulted along the treacherous journey north before they even turn themselves in to agents at the Texas-Mexico border. From there, they often end up in holding pens that migrants call a hielera
, Spanish for icebox or kennel because they resemble big, heavily air-conditioned cages.
From there, many end up in Karnes or Dilley, immigrant detention centers that were either built or retooled to help the feds manage a growing refugee crisis after record numbers of asylum seeking women and children began showing up along the southwest border in 2014.
While so-called "family detention" of immigrants has been challenged in court, Texas officials have fought to license those centers as "child care" facilities. Meanwhile mental health experts who have toured Dilley and Karnes say they've seen children losing weight, shedding hair and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression while in lockup. Some of the attorneys and advocates who work at the sites claim health care is so bad that children often have to be hospitalized once released. In fact, volunteers here last week said that dozens of kids who were dropped off in San Antonio suffered from serious, untreated flu-like symptoms. A couple of women were sent immediately to a local hospital with serious sinus infections. Children devoured the donated food at the Mennonite church as if they hadn't eaten in a long time.
As Fischer puts it, people should be paying attention not just to how these families were dropped off in the middle of the night, but also to where they came from in the first place. “We’re doing much more than just basic legal work, because the conditions of these detention centers is very poor," she told the crowd gathered Saturday. Often, advocates with Raices or other legal aid groups are the ones who have to help families air complaints of shoddy medical care, sexual abuse or harassment in lockup, mistreatment from guards, or poor quality of food. The San Antonio community, she said, should see last week's massive release of families here as sign of the federal government's strategy of “deterrence, detention and deportation" of asylum seekers.
Some advocates point to a Travis County court ruling
that blocked the state from licensing the detention just hours before families were released in San Antonio, but it's hard at this point to see exactly how one was related to the other. According to numbers provided by ICE last week, there were still nearly 1,800 women and children at Dilley and some 600 refugees at Karnes after
the feds released nearly 500 families here. It could just be that the feds are running out of places to put all the asylum seekers they'd prefer to detain.
On Saturday, local elected officials seemed frustrated that, even a week out from the sudden release of 500 refugees to town, they still don't have a lot of answers from ICE. Congressman Lloyd Doggett told the crowd, "This wasn't a natural disaster, it was a product of bureaucratic indifference to San Antonio and to these children and their families.”
You can watch the whole Raices forum here: