Immigrant rights groups on Monday sent a pair of open letters to the Obama administration asking officials to end the practice of detaining undocumented children with their mothers.
The letters, delivered the day after Mother's Day, come amid a weekslong controversy over the treatment of mothers seeking asylum who are protesting their detention at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas.
A handwritten letter in Spanish signed by 19 of the women locked up in the detention center at Karnes pleaded with President Barack Obama to free them, saying they were being treated like criminals even though they are asylum-seekers.
The letter says many of the women have remained in detention for months despite passing interviews with immigration authorities establishing they have a reasonable fear of facing persecution in their home countries. It's common in asylum cases to release applicants who pass credible fear interviews, and allow them to fight their cases outside detention. But because some of them have prior deportations on their records, the letter says, immigration authorities refuse to release them.
“We came fleeing violence in our countries looking for refuge and protection in this country,” the letter says, “but we never thought they would do this to us.”
The letter says some of the children detained at the Karnes facility have grown depressed, refusing to eat or study.
“What worries us most is that some of them say they will throw themselves from the top of the building so they let us leave,” the letter says, “while some of the teenagers say they’d rather roll a sheet around their necks and kill themselves because they don’t want to stay detained.”
A second letter, signed by nearly 500 scholars and graduate students, also urged Obama to free the women and children from detention.
“By continuing the practice of family detention, we are betraying our nation's core values and rendering our formal apologies to families detained wrongfully at Angel and Ellis Islands and during WWII, some of the darkest moments of U.S. history, meaningless,” Kristina Shull, who teaches humanities at the University of California in Irvine, wrote in a statement. “This policy of detention as deterrence has not arisen out of necessity, logic, or fiscal sense, but rather out of our country's long and shameful history of xenophobia and an absolute misperception that migrants pose any kind of threat to the public, which countless scholarly studies affirm that they do not.”
Immigrant rights activists also pressed Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) to join their call to release the women. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Karnes County Residential Center, one of three detention facilities used to lock up women apprehended while crossing into the U.S. illegally with children, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after some 78 mothers launched a hunger strike ahead of the Easter holidays to protest the continued detention of themselves and their children. Some of the protesters said guards at the center, which is operated as a for-profit enterprise by prison contractor GEO Group, responded by placing them in isolation with their children and threatening to separate the mothers from their children if they continued to refuse food.
GEO Group has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying in public statements: “The Karnes County Residential Center provides high quality care in a safe, clean, and family friendly environment, and onsite U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE's Family Residential Standards.”
The Obama administration largely curtailed the practice of detaining women with their children in 2009, in the face of continual protests against the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Texas. But with an influx of roughly 68,000 family units entering illegally last year, along with another 68,000 unaccompanied minors, the Obama administration widely expanded family detention, saying it would act as a deterrent.
The vast majority of the family units and unaccompanied minors from last year’s border crisis came from the violence-plagued countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The case has taken on new urgency in recent weeks, following a tentative ruling from U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee last month saying the Obama administration’s practice of detaining children with their mothers violated the settlement in the 1997 case of Flores v. Meese. That settlement said undocumented children must be released to the care of a parent or legal guardian if possible instead of remaining in detention.
The tentative ruling, issued last month as a memo to attorneys representing women in family detention, said children cannot be housed in detention centers like the one at Karnes, or a newer, 2,500-bed facility in Dilley, Texas, according to a report by McClatchy. Instead, they must be held in facilities licensed to house dependent children.
Gee gave the lawyers for the immigrants and the government 30 days to negotiate a settlement before issuing a final ruling.
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