Families Protest How The U.S. Treats Asylum Seekers

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images.
For the past two weeks, hundreds of women have been staging a hunger strike at the T. Don Hutto detention facility in Taylor, TX, to protest the Obama administration's policy of detaining asylum seekers for months on end. The action swelled to include as many as 500 strikers and has now entered a “new phase of rolling strikes,” according to an account published by Colorlines.

The hunger strikers have good reason to take such a strong stand: The vast majority of the detained women are seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing violence in Central America — in some of the most dangerous cities in the world. Many of the women have been directly targeted by gangs or state authorities and, understandably, fear they will face the same threats if they are deported back to their home countries.

The protest has raised awareness of the harsh conditions refugees often face when attempting to enter the United States. But it isn't just the women at T. Don Hutto who are suffering in prison-like facilities as they wait for asylum.

More than 2,000 refugee women and children are currently held in these family detention facilities, despite a federal judge's ruling that they be released. The centers — in Dilley and Karnes, TX, as well as Berks, PA — continue to operate, leaving families living in hellish conditions. Imagine waiting in a prison, sometimes for months, after violence and terror drove you from your home.

Imagine waiting in a prison-like facility, sometimes for months, after violence and terror drove you from your home.

In late October, the Obama administration passed a deadline, imposed by Federal Judge Dolly Gee, to sharply curb the government's practice of detaining refugee families in these facilities. Gee ordered the release of the families after no more than five days, though the government has argued it needs to hold families for a maximum of 20 days if there is an "influx" of refugees — like the thousands of children who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last summer.

“Approximately 215 families, or we estimate 473 mothers and children, have been detained longer than 20 days,” says Lindsay Harris, legal fellow for the American Immigration Council.

The order also says that the refugees can't be held in centers that don't have licenses for children. Neither the Dilley nor Karnes centers have such a license; both are run by private prison companies. The third facility was licensed for children, but the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services recently decided not to renew that license when it expires early next year — because the center is detaining entire refugee families, not just housing children.

Christina Brown, a pro bono attorney who has represented dozens of detainees, remains deeply critical of the administration's family detention policy. “It's kind of astounding [that], given Judge Gee's orders, given everything against the government in holding these women and children, they're pushing and fighting to detain them,” says Brown.

Families are being told to drink water when they have very serious illnesses.

Elora Mukherjee, director, Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School

Health concerns have been a major issue at the facilities, especially for families who had been detained for six months or more prior to the judge's order. In one case, 250 children were given an adult dose of the Hepatitis A vaccine. According to Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, little has changed since August. “It's as bad as ever,” she says. “The health problems remain the same. Families are being told to drink water when they have very serious illnesses. They're not getting appropriate medical care.”

Although Obama largely ended a Bush-era policy of detaining families in 2009, the administration reversed course last year in response to a rush of refugees at the southern U.S. border. The Department of Homeland Security went from only about 85 beds for families in May 2014 to around 3,700 by 2015 — and contracted with private prison companies to meet the need for more beds. (Prior to working with these prisons, the Obama administration had maintained a policy of releasing families into the community before a scheduled court hearing.)

In June, families at Dilley, TX staged a demonstration during a Congressional visit to the detention center. On one level, the protest worked; their plight and the issue of family detention was out of the shadows. But several women at Dilley and at Karnes claim they faced retaliation by guards after their protest actions. Similarly, some of the hunger strikers at T. Don Hutto say they were placed in solitary confinement or were transferred to centers that primarily hold men. ICE has denied that any detainees are on hunger strike, or that any of the women have been retaliated against.

Though family detention remains controversial, an ICE spokesperson says the department has met the judge’s requirements.

Despite ICE's claims, lawyers for the women will likely argue that the government is in clear violation of several aspects of the judge's order — from the length of time the families are held to the improper licensing at the facilities. As President Obama looks toward his lasting legacy on immigration, advocates say shutting down family detention altogether would be a clear victory for human rights.

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