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Family Values Behind Bars

(h/t to the Women's Conference for the photo)

While the jury continues their deliberations, the world keeps spinning on its axis.

Last December, Pach highlighted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on various Swift meat processing plants, sweeping up all manner of workers. Some were legal, others were not, but "working while brown" seemed to be the common denominator. One of the most problematic issues, to me, was the handling of children and families. Little thought seemed to have been given to how to deal with the children in school whose parents were swept up. Churches and other groups stepped up, but the lack of concern on the part of ICE for the children affected by this was appalling.

This past Thursday, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, two well-known and non-partisan NGOs, released a report entitled Locking Up Family Values (large pdf – 2 MB). It details the conditions at two model "family detention facilites" run by ICE, and the story is appalling.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children felt it vital to examine the implications of this expanding penal approach to family detention in order to inform the development of policy and practice that serves the best interests of children and families. To that end we visited both the T. Don Hutto Residential Center and the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility and talked with detained families as well as former detainees. What we found was disturbing:

• Hutto is a former criminal facility that still looks and feels like a prison, complete with razor wire and prison cells.
• Some families with young children have been detained in these facilities for up to two years.
• The majority of children detained in these facilities appeared to be under the age of 12.
• At night, children as young as six were separated from their parents.
• Separation and threats of separation were used as disciplinary tools.
• People in detention displayed widespread and obvious psychological trauma. Every woman we spoke with in a private setting cried.
• At Hutto pregnant women received inadequate prenatal care.
• Children detained at Hutto received one hour of schooling per day.
• Families in Hutto received no more than twenty minutes to go through the cafeteria line and feed their children and themselves. Children were frequently sick from the food and losing weight.
• Families in Hutto received extremely limited indoor and outdoor recreation time and children did not have any soft toys.

And that's just from the summary.

But this list is clinical and antiseptic. LIRS and the Women's Commission opened their report with something more direct: the words of children from these detained families:

Dominica is a Honduran asylum seeker detained with her two children at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas. Nelly is nine years old and Alice is three. At night they all sleep together in the bottom bunk of their jail cell because they are afraid. Nelly says, “If you are not good, they will take you away from your mom.”

Dominica is almost seven months pregnant. The doctor has told her for months that her baby is underweight. He has told her she needs to eat more. But she says she can’t. “The food doesn’t work here. I cannot eat it.” She explains that the food is “difficult to eat” and she doesn’t get much time. “There are only a maximum of 20 minutes to eat and I have to feed my children first. They do not eat quickly. You are not allowed to take food out of the cafeteria, even if you haven’t had time to finish. Something like bread or an apple…they take it away. It is so sad to throw something like that away because you could not eat fast enough.”

Dominica requested parole over two months ago. Her mother is a legal permanent resident and she has passed a credible fear interview. She still has not a received a response to her request. She is afraid that she will have her baby in jail.

Dominica’s story is just one of countless tales from detained immigrant families. A small child’s note, slipped into the hand of a member of our delegation, sums up their pleas: “Help us and ask us questions.”

The report and the news conference that accompanied its release have generated a couple of articles, but the story has more or less disappeared into the vast news coverage of the "war on terror," the Iraq debate, and Anna Nicole Smith. Still, here are snippets from the coverage to date.

From the Boston Globe

"What hits you the hardest in there is that it's a prison. In Hutto, it's a prison," said Michelle Brané, director of the detention and asylum project for the Women's Commission.

At a news conference, the groups alleged that some families are kept up to two years in the facilities and that those petitioning for asylum or trying to prove they shouldn't be deported are forced to stay there the longest.

"We are taking people who fear persecution and locking them up," said Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

From the NY Times:

“The prisonlike conditions, this form of detention, is not necessary,” said Michelle Brané, who heads the detention and asylum program at the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

“We release criminals,” said Ms. Brané, pointing to parole and monitored supervision programs. “Yet for immigrants in civil proceedings, they have not explored those options. And these are families with children.”

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

At the Hutto facility, one woman reported she had not received a prenatal medical exam until seven months into her pregnancy. Other detainees reported delays in receiving medical care, the report said.

It said the care of pregnant women had improved at Hutto since researchers who prepared the report had visited the facility. But the report criticized Hutto for continuing to transport pregnant women to the hospital in handcuffs.

Staff at both facilities threatened to separate children from their parents as a means of control, the report said.

"All families interviewed express a general sense that they were disrespected by staff members, frequently yelled at and issued unnecessarily harsh punishments for behavior as simple as not being able to do homework for lack of a pencil," it said.

Whose family values include denial of adequate prenatal care to those in your custody?

Whose family values include the denial of sufficient clothes to get from laundry day to laundry day?

Whose family values include four hours of school (up from one!) a day?

Whose family values include inflicting psychological damage, with little care and concern for the consequences?

Whose family values allow parents only 20 minutes to feed themselves and their kids, and won't allow anyone to take an apple out of the cafeteria?

This is what we get from the Lou Dobbsification of the immigration debate, which argues (in essence), "These aren't people — they are criminals who chose to break our immigration laws and ought to be punished and deported." This dehumanizes everyone – both those in custody and the custodians who guard them.

We're talking about people here – some of them quite young.

We're talking about families here – some of them quite devastated.

We're talking about ourselves here – this is our government at work, doing all this in our name.

Some of these folks in detention may indeed have broken the immigration laws of this country, but that does not give us the right to do what this report describes when we detain them. LIRS and the Women's Commission describe the failure of ICE to live up to a legal settlement from a 1996 case (Flores v. Reno), the failure to put the force of regulation and law behind what few guidelines they do have in place, and the failure to treat those in detention with basic human dignity.

But LIRS and the Women's Commission aren't simply wagging their fingers at ICE. The report includes detailed recommendations for addressing the situation, many of which would require nothing more than employing a little common sense in place of fear and craven political posturing.

Of course, that may be asking a lot, given the track record of Michael Chertoff and the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe if Congress exercised a little oversight . . .

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.