In 2014, 60,000 women and children refugees fled persecution and violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras because of gang violence, domestic and child abuse. They seek asylum here. These women and children are seeking asylum as both U.S. and international law give them the right to do in the United States. Asylum officers have found the great majority of these women to have at least a “credible” or “reasonable” fear of persecution or torture, so that the women and children should be free to pursue their claims for refuge in the U.S. Until last June, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) allowed asylum seekers who did not individually present any danger to safety or security, and who did not have any criminal history, to pursue their legal cases while living with family or friends, or supported by religious and charitable organizations.
In a radical change from past policy, however, last summer DHS began to detain all but a handful of these women and children asylum seekers, first in Artesia, New Mexico and Berks County, Pennsylvania, and then in family detention centers, in Karnes City (532 people) and Dilley (which is gearing up to detain 2400 people). DHS rationalizes its practice of refusing to release any women as necessary for “national security.” The only people who benefit from scape-goating and locking up children and their mothers, however, are fear-mongering politicians and the private-prison corporations that run the detention centers. The latter, GEO and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), charge anywhere from $150 to $289 per person per day to warehouse these asylum seekers. U.S. taxpayers bear the cost.
Asylum officers who have interviewed these women and children have determined that the majority express at least credible fears of persecution, and that usually there is a significant possibility that those seeking refuge will qualify for asylum, withholding of removal, or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Nevertheless, DHS has kept these refuge-seeking families incarcerated – refusing to set bond or grant parole – for months, as a blanket policy. DHS does not decide whether given individual people present any flight risk, danger to the community, or threat to the national security. Rather, DHS claims that all of these Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran women and children pose a “national security risk” to the U.S., a claim that would be laughable if it did not underlie a massive tragedy and human rights scandal.
Some women and children have been in Karnes since the beginning of August. Detention not only prevents women from recovering from the trauma experienced in the home countries and on their perilous journeys from Central America, but also exacerbates that trauma. Psychologists have found that the mental health of both women and children deteriorates during detention.
Worst off, perhaps, are Guatemalan women whose native languages are K’iche, Mam, Q’anjobal, Kaqchikel, and other Mayan languages, and who neither speak nor understand Spanish or English. These women suffer incarceration by people with whom they cannot communicate. They spend weeks and months locked up, without any explanation of why they are locked up, what the legal process entails, and, typically, no effective legal representation.
Because of the DHS no-bond policy, women must go to judges if they want to be released on bond. Though the judges do consider each woman’s situation individually, they have been setting bonds at amounts ranging from $1500 to $15,000, with most falling somewhere between $4000 and $7000. These are very high amounts for families with low or only modest incomes; women who cannot raise these amounts remain incarcerated even after judges do set bonds.
The issues these women suffer are issues important to women in this country, in this hemisphere, and across the world: domestic violence, constant harassment on the street, stalking, sexual exploitation, rape, femicide, torture, and multiple forms of child abuse. Adolescents and young women, and single mothers are at especially great risk in these countries, where there is widespread impunity for violence against women and children. Women suffer dire poverty, abandonment, and lack of access to health care inadequate educational opportunities and consequent low levels of literacy. Second class citizens, women endure gender discrimination and subordination to men in economic, political, social life, as well as in their homes.
Powerful private prison lobbies persuaded Congress to mandate that ICE must lock up a minimum of 34,000 people every night. Where is the lobby for Honduran seven-year olds? For Salvadoran teenagers and single mothers? Who will speak up for the indigenous Mayan women who are unable to communicate with their captors or obtain legal information or assistance?
It is up to us — women – to end the detention of women and children seeking refuge.