Obama’s immigration detention policies hurt mothers, children

IN DETENTION: Elementary-aged children take a class in Spanish at a federal immigration detention center in Karnes City, Texas.
IN DETENTION: Elementary-aged children take a class in Spanish at a federal immigration detention center in Karnes City, Texas. AP

Perhaps with an eye on his legacy, President Obama is putting muscle behind human-rights protections for women and girls. Last year, he convened the historic White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault. He recently signed an executive order to secure equal pay for women from federal contractors. At the Grammys, he spotlighted gender violence. “It’s on us — all of us — to create a culture where violence isn’t tolerated,” he said via video.

Yet hundreds of Latinas from Central America — many of them survivors of violence — spent Mother’s Day locked up with their children. Some sought safety in the United States after fleeing gangs that had killed or threatened to kill their children. Others suffered severe domestic violence and fled because the authorities were unable or unwilling to protect them.

Now they find themselves behind barbed wire in U.S. immigration detention facilities. What a glaring departure from President Obama’s otherwise solid record on women’s rights.

Vice President Joe Biden, the administration’s point person on this Central American refugee crisis, has rightly called for a response that addresses its causes. But the vice president — who as a senator in 1990 introduced the Violence Against Women Act — should also concern himself with the victims who made it to the United States. Why punish them further?

Politicians from both parties are calling attention to the problem of mass incarceration and its impact on people of color. But because these facilities aren’t classified as prisons, these Latinas and their children don’t register on incarceration statistics. Yet Obama’s unjust detention policy is de facto criminalization.

This is a shameful failure of our government to live up to its founding ideals. It’s even worse when you consider its purpose: to deter desperate people from coming to the United States. As Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has made clear, family detention is part of the administration’s “aggressive deterrence strategy.”

International law, which the United States played a lead role in developing, prohibits the use of detention to deter people from seeking protection. Asylum seekers may be detained only on the basis of an individualized assessment. In February, a federal judge said the administration’s blanket detention policy likely violated federal law and ordered it to stop.

Yet suffering mothers and their children remain locked up. They fled some of the most dangerous places on Earth. El Salvador now rivals Honduras as murder capital of the world. Gangs prey on young people, and fear for their children’s lives is often why mothers flee.

Some have already received protection in the United States based on their well-founded fear of persecution. And the administration clearly believes that some are likely to meet the refugee standard, as it’s launched in-country processing for some children.

But after Central Americans began seeking protection in larger numbers, immigration authorities opposed release even for those who met the requirements. Detention is traumatic, especially for children. Mothers report that their children are sick, depressed and anxious.

Detention always hinders the ability of asylum seekers to get legal representation, and the main family detention facilities are far from cities with significant pro bono resources. According to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 98.5 percent of the women with children who lacked lawyers were ordered deported. Women with lawyers were 17 times more likely to receive relief.

To protest their detention, women in Karnes, Texas, launched two hunger strikes last month. Honduran Kenia Galeano, a leader of one of the strikes, told the Huffington Post that authorities isolated her and her 2-year-old son in a dark room and threatened to take him away from her if she continued to fast.

Detaining these families is not only cruel but also unnecessary. There are lower cost alternatives that have succeeded in ensuring that asylum-seekers show up for their hearings. And Americans support such an approach.

A recent poll conducted for Human Rights First by Public Opinion Strategies found that 62 percent of voters believe the government should rely on alternatives to detention for refugees seeking asylum.

Last Mother’s Day, President Obama urged “all Americans to express love and gratitude to mothers everywhere.” This year, the mothers his administration locked up were not expecting cards or flowers. They’d just like to get out of detention.

Elisa Massimino is president and CEO of Human Rights First. Carol Robles-Román is president and CEO of Legal Momentum, The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.