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U.S. Immigration Prisons Lack Oversight, Re-Traumatize Refugees

Two new reports show how families fleeing extreme violence in Central America are detained by the US government in facilities with little meaningful oversight, where the trauma of their journey is compounded by the Department of Homeland Security’s tendency to treat them like criminals.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) published a report [PDF] on October 19, which describes how DHS has failed to provide trauma-informed care to mothers and children detained at the border.

Each mother and child interviewed by UUSC passed a credible fear interview, “demonstrating that they have a reasonable fear that they or their children will be killed if they are deported.” These individuals were either in a family detention center or had recently been released when they spoke with UUSC, and described conditions at home “sufficient to push them to risk their lives to journey to the United States,” including extortion under the threat of death.

Mothers reported that the consequence of nonpayment of extortion fees was either the assassination of a family member or the parent herself, or “delivery” of one or more of their children to the gang. Refusal to comply meant death. Others were told explicitly that if their children did not join the gang, they would murder the child and one other member of their families. The women and children were exposed to shootings, had lost family members to the gangs either by conscription or by murder, and reported witnessing bodies in the streets of victims who did not obey the gangs or belonged to rival gangs. Because of this extreme violence and the collusion or impotence of the police, the women interviewed felt the only way to protect their children was to leave their countries of origin.

Those same individuals described a perilous escape, “witnessing murder and rape as they took the trains northward.”

One witnessed an elderly man being thrown off the train. Others described wandering in the desert with their guides without food and water, certain that they were going to die. One child participant who had been on the verge of death crossing the border from Mexico broke down during his interview, explaining, “We got lost and, well, we didn’t even have water … I didn’t have strength … that’s why I cried a lot, because I thought we weren’t going to live anymore.”

Families who made it to America and were arrested at the border “report being kept in caged facilities they derisively call perreras (dog kennels), children being separated from their mothers, mothers being threatened and humiliated by prison staff, and family detention facilities failing to provide the most rudimentary mental health services.”

Many mothers and children were first sent to an extremely cold facility, which they called hieleras (freezers).

Mothers reported significant distress among the children in the freezers. Their children cried a lot because they were so cold. A mother from Guatemala recalled, “I felt a lot of pain thinking about how cold I was and my poor kids being cold as well. I didn’t want my kids to suffer.” The families Luis Zayas interviewed in 2014 also recalled the hieleras as being intensely cold holding cells with no privacy, “including a toilet used by everyone that was exposed to the view of everyone in the cell.”

Unsurprisingly, over half of the respondents indicated they had symptoms of depression and anxiety at “clinically significant levels.” Almost half described symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s important to note exposure to repeated stressful and traumatic events such as these may worsen an individual’s symptoms and even create new mental and physical health problems.

Treating refugees as criminals

The US government’s policy of treating asylum seekers as criminals instead of survivors does little to help. “For parents who experienced the very real possibility of kidnapping and murder of their children in their countries of origin,” the authors write, “the potential for trauma and mental anguish is intensified.”

The severity of parental anguish may be magnified when occurring in a detention center, in an unfamiliar culture and language, and in the context of a history of prior trauma. For individuals who have been trapped and in hiding to avoid being killed by gang members, the sense of being trapped and confined in a detention center may also bring about flashbacks or a sense of reexperiencing the event. This inhumane practice piles on additional trauma and creates additional risk for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

The migrants were then transferred to facilities in Texas, including Karnes and Dilley, where their conditions marginally improved. But they now faced a new, different set of stressors.

Most disturbingly, mothers in this study reported that they were told that their children would be taken away from them by Child Protective Services if they did not comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rules and demands or if they complained about mental health issues.

… The women reported hostile glances from guards and degradations like having officials arbitrarily order them to throw away items on the table, even snatching their things and throwing them in the trash. Guards hectored mothers to “watch” their observably well-behaved children, undermining the parents’ authority in the eyes of their children.

UUSC cautions that their sample is too small to generalize about the mental health conditions of all Central American migrants in detention, but notes their findings match up perfectly with those from other studies on the subject. “That these mothers and children are asylum seekers who have experienced often repeated traumas before and during their migration heightens the risk detention poses their long-term health.”

In August, Shadowproof published Desiree Kane’s investigation into Casa de Paz, a Denver-based charity which helps refugees leaving detention. Their experiences mirror the findings of the report, including racist and abusive treatment, and even food containing foreign matter. Jose Deras, a former immigrant detainee, told Kane, “you can find coins, like what happened in my case, screws, plastic bags, everything in the food.”

Ineffective oversight leads to unchallenged abuses

Asylum seekers may face such abhorrent treatment because of the quality of standards enforcement in detention facilities. Another study published this month by the National Immigrant Justice Center showed how weak and ineffective oversight of ICE detention policies allows abuses to go unchallenged.

NIJC based the report off of a trove of documents obtained through FOIA and “years of resource-intensive litigation,” because ICE does not make its reports readily available to the public. Researchers discovered there is no real independent oversight of ICE, as the Office of Detention Oversight (ODO) is housed within the agency and third party inspectors are employed as private contractors.

ODO and the Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which inspect ICE facilities, have been known to warn the facility ahead of time, which limits their accuracy by affording officials the opportunity to cover up any deficiencies.

The reliability of those inspections are further called into question by what NIJC calls “significant inconsistencies” between them. “In October 2014,” the authors write, “the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] criticizing the variation between inspections carried out by ERO and ODO during roughly the same time period for the same facilities.”

The GAO report found ODO and ERO inspections “differed in the extent to which they found deficiencies in medical care for the same facilities, including facility inspection reports in which only ERO found deficiencies, facility reports in which only ODO found deficiencies, and reports in which both ERO and ODO found deficiencies but the specific deficiencies differed.”

At one private detention facility, the ODO found officials were not safeguarding detainee medical information. ERO, however, did not find any deficiencies in medical care at the same facility.

Because the inspection standards are “segmented into sterile lists of mundane details,” researchers found it was apparently easy for officials to overlook problems “because they do not immediately appear to be connected to anything important.”

Bizarrely, this “checklist culture” led officials widely interpret the standards, including repeated determinations “that indoor rooms with windows count as providing outdoor recreation because air from the outside can enter the room.”

ICE also chooses to contract with facilities enforcing standards that are more than a decade old. According to NIJC, “Not only are the 2000 [National Detention Standards (NDS)] irrelevant to the times, they are also largely irrelevant to the needs of detained individuals. In fact, one of the 2000 NDS states that a facility is in compliance if the law library is adequately equipped with typewriters.”

Despite a well documented history of abuse and inhumane conditions, the NIJC found “the ERO and ODO inspections consistently fail to account for or acknowledge egregious human rights concerns raised in independent reports published by NGOs.”

Where human rights abuses are discovered, oversight agencies rarely give failing grades — and that decision may be tied to funding. NIJC found “the number of failed facilities dropped significantly since 2009, when Congress implemented the appropriations requirement that ICE not expend funds to facilities with two consecutive failed inspections.”

This may be why, at the privately-operated Eloy detention center, where there have been high-profile reports of abusive conditions and sexual assault, “inspection reports reveal ICE’s complicity in obscuring the facility’s failure to meaningfully address its violations. Based on the inspections reports NIJC received, Eloy has not failed an ERO inspection since 2006.”

The recommendations between the UUSC and NIJC range from implementing alternatives to incarceration, to increasing transparency and oversight and improving the quality of inspections. Importantly, both acknowledge the need for actual accountability and real consequences for those who violate asylum-seekers rights and the law.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.