Shameful

Happy Mother’s Day—In Detention. Love, Obama Administration

By “invitation” of Homeland Security, these mothers are indeed spending Mother’s Day with their children—in lockup.

05.10.15 4:01 AM ET

Ideally, Moms should spend Mother’s Day with their children. 

These mothers are doing that, but in conditions that are far from ideal: Moms and their kids squeezed together in cold, damp cells in a government-run detention facility, a dark and dreary place where mother and child are given sparse rations and denied the right to counsel, and where moms are left no choice but to go on hunger strikes in an attempt to draw attention to the abuse they’re suffering. 

Where’s this occurring? Russia? China? North Korea? Should we start an international campaign to pressure a foreign government, or marauding gangs, or human smuggling cartels to do the right thing? #FreeTheMoms?

Think closer to home. This phenomenon — moms in detention — is happening here in the United States, in federal facilities located in states like Texas and New Mexico.

These women and children are being effectively kept as prisoners, even though they don’t have lawyers or charges lodged against them. This kind of lockup sounds like such a dreadful punishment. What terrible crime did they commit? 

They believed. They crossed into the United States last summer — along with more than 80,000 uninvited guests, almost entirely other women and children from Central America — because they believed what they had heard about how the United States was a safe haven for refugees fleeing oppression, death, horror. 

Central America has all of the above, especially in recent years now that violent youth gangs and drug cartels are warring for control of countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. It’s the kind of place where young girls are sexually assaulted, and young boys are recruited into gangs with an offer they can’t refuse: join up or watch your family die. It’s the kind of place where mothers scrape their fingers bloody rubbing rosary beads as they pray to the saints to keep their children safe. Over the last couple of years, thousands of mothers have grabbed their children and a few personal belongings and headed north, through Mexico and into the United States across the Texas border. 

Here’s what we know from news accounts, government records, and the testimony of refugees themselves.

The first wave, which arrived approximately between October 2013 and April 2014, took U.S. immigration officials by surprise. And so, the first instinct was to get rid of them by doing what the law allows — transferring them into the custody of U.S.-based relatives with a notice to appear before an immigration judge at some future date. Many of those who were released in this fashion never showed for their court appearance and instead blended into the sizable population of undocumented immigrants in the United States. 

Of course, there is no excuse for failing to appear—even though, in some well-publicized cases, the assigned court was more than 1000 miles from where the defendant was located. The point is that, once these refugees were released from custody, it was easy for them to disappear. Perhaps the authorities saw this as a mistake that they didn’t want to repeat with the waves that followed.

The final wave, which arrived after September 2014, were immediately arrested and deported back to their home countries in a showy and well-organized repatriation effort intended to send a message to the people who still lived there and might have been contemplating a journey of their own to the United States: “Don’t come. You will be apprehended and sent home.” Before long, the flow of refugees from families from Central America dried up to a trickle.

In between those two waves — of those who were let go and those who were sent home — was the middle wave of refugees, those who arrived approximately between April and August 2014. These are the people who came in droves, the ones you saw on the news steaming across the Texas-Mexico border last summer.

Ever wonder what happened to them? Many of them were apprehended and, instead of being deported, they were placed in makeshift detention facilities. For a time, even some abandoned military bases were converted to house these refugee families. More recently, they have been placed in federal detention facilities. And forgotten.

There are activists who have traveled to the towns where these centers are based and tried to gain access to the detainees. When they can provide humanitarian aid, they do. 

I spoke to one activist who has made the pilgrimage, and who is himself undocumented. He believes that these centers need to shut down because of what allegedly occurs there. 

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One of the more notorious detention facilities is the Karnes County Residential Center, located about 100 miles south of Austin. In October, several immigration advocacy groups fired off a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, which hired a for-profit prison operator to run the facility. The groups allege that women are being sexually abused and otherwise mistreated by guards at the facility. The company, Geo Group Inc., denies the allegations and insists that the Karnes Center “provides a safe, clean, and family-friendly environment for mothers and children.”

You’ll find liberals who are concerned about closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay but who are not comparably worked up over, for instance, what’s happening to women and children at institutions like Karnes.

You have to hand it to the Obama administration. In the last six-and-a-half years, it has racked up a record 2 million deportations and divided hundreds of thousands of families. Now team Obama has finally found a way to keep families intact: just lock up mothers and children together in makeshift family prisons. 

And now, the administration has come up with a Mother’s Day present for the thousands of immigrant women, and children it has incarcerated in detention facilities: a slap in the face.  

The gift was delivered not by courier but by lawyers, which is rarely a good sign. The lawyers, who work at the Justice Department, have maintained that the child refugees being held in detention don’t have a due process right to counsel under the Constitution. And so they asked U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly to dismiss in its entirety a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s policy of rushing thousands of incarcerated children into deportation proceedings without first giving them legal representation. The judge refused to do so.   

The attorneys recently requested that Zilly stay all further court action on the due process claims of these women and children until Justice can appeal his ruling. The judge has said that the right-to-counsel claim is too important to be put off much longer. A decision on the request for a stay should be forthcoming. 

It seems like a lot of trouble for the U.S. government to go to, all so it can do as it pleases with people who are weak and vulnerable — child refugees, most of whom don’t speak English or understand what’s happening to them.

This is not the Obama administration’s finest hour. It stands taller when it defends immigrants and refugees, not when it is going to such extraordinary lengths to remove them or turning a blind eye to those who are alleged to have abused them. 

As for those Justice Department lawyers, well, you have to wonder how they sleep at night. This is why they went to law school? This is how they’re using their legal training—trying to deny representation to a bunch of kids?

Their own mothers must be very proud.