By Pierre Berastain
When President Barack Obama declared the surge of unaccompanied minors a “humanitarian crisis,” immigration activists were hopeful the President would help thousands of women and children fleeing violence. However, the administration responded to the crisis with a policy far from appropriate or humane. President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson looked on as families and children were locked in detention centers. Though these centers are supposed to be less harsh than prisons, they instead operate as institutions that worsen the trauma migrant women and children experience in their dangerous countries and journeys. The lack of mental health services, alleged abuses by officers, and the general conditions render family detention centers unlivable and dangerous for many seeking refuge.
Detained women and children are constantly reminded of the traumas they’ve experienced. Migrant women are leaving countries that have the highest rates of femicide and violence against women according to United Nations estimates. There, the journey to and from school could lead to death. Gangs brutally murder women to show their dominance. No matter how much money these families give to gang members to leave them alone, or how many times the families relocate, they continue to be persecuted. After much brutality, they flee their countries to protect themselves from these crimes.
But their journey to the United States is just as dangerous. Women and girls prepare themselves for the journey by taking contraceptives so, if they are raped, they will not become pregnant. On their long journey to the United States, 80% of women and girls are raped. Despite the very likely possibility that they will be assaulted, women and children continue to make the journey north.
Unfortunately, making it on to US soil doesn’t mean problems end for these women and children. In the hands of ICE officers and detention center guards, the women and their children see their traumas exacerbated. According to The Human Rights Watch, indefinite detention is traumatic and has profound psychological effects. Many of the detained women and children who they interviewed suffered from depression and suicidal thinking. In a letter to President Obama, mothers at the Karnes detention center described the constant headaches they suffer from because of the stress of being held in the detention center. Jailing children (most of whom are on average six years old, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service) and their mothers does not ensure that they will make it to their court appointments; it does ensure their traumas will worsen.
One of the most widespread criticisms of family detention centers is the lack of mental health resources for survivors of sexual assault. Both women and children walk through the halls of family detention centers carrying the burden of the sexual assault they witnessed or experienced. Though the Department of Homeland Security and ICE claim they provide adequate resources for their detainees, in reality their resources are not only very limited, but also not sensitive to the culture and genders of those they claim to help. For example, the Artesia Family Detention Center offers no onsite mental health providers; women and children were able to talk to a psychiatrist only through a video feed, making it very difficult for any relationship to form. To make matters worse, women could only speak to a male psychiatrist. Women who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of men were expected to speak about the trauma to other men. For many Latinas, being asked– and often times forced–to talk about rape to a man is unthinkable. Women often leave important details out of their narratives, and the experience further prevents them from healing. Despite the closing of the Artesia Center, malpractice of mental health services is still prevalent among the newer, much larger detention centers.
The trauma is also worsened by sexual assault that occurs to these women while detained. In 2009, a guard at the infamous Hutto Detention Center was caught crawling out of a woman’s cell in the middle of the night. Though there was substantial evidence indicating that the woman had been raped, the guard never faced charges. The woman and her child, however, were later deported.
Six years after the sexual assault case at Hutto, the prevalence of sexual assault and ICE’s attempts to hide them are still a major issue. Less than a year ago, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and other advocacy groups sent a letter to Secretary Johnson demanding the investigation of allegations of sexual assault committed by guards and personnel at the Karnes Detention Center. The women represented by MALDEF made disturbing allegations: guards had promised desperate mothers money, shelter, and help with immigration proceedings in exchange for sexual favors. The guards removed women from their cells in the middle of the night or early in the morning for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts. Even worse, the guards allegedly touched the women inappropriately in front of others, including children.
But as in the Hutto case, no one faced charges. Though ICE conducted an investigation, they found the claims to be false. Their evidence, however, was taken solely from the testimonies of guards themselves and women who were terrified of deportation. The results of this biased investigation fails to address serious concerns of sexual assault in detention centers and perpetuates the belief that the victims, not the perpetrators, will face repercussions for speaking out, whether that’s leaving their family and countries or being deported back to those same countries. These women flee the sexual violence that exists in their countries only to realize they haven’t escaped the nightmare while under the responsibility of the US government.
Despite being subjected to incarceration and abuse, the women detained at the centers have tried to resist the injustices perpetrated against them. In late April, more than 70 mothers held a hunger strike, a work strike, or stood in solidarity to demand their freedom and to protest the conditions and abuses they experience in the detention center. Though ICE reacted by putting the leaders and their families in dark, isolated rooms, the strike sparked a movement among the different detention centers. Within weeks of the first strike at Karnes, there was another strike at the center to get the attention of ICE Director, Sarah Saldaña. Then, ten mothers at the Berks detention center in Pennsylvania launched a work strike demanding their release and the closing of the center. At a men’s Arizona detention facility, more than 200 men participated in a hunger strike after the death of José de Jesús Deniz-Sahagún, who at the time was under ICE custody.
The resilience of these women, men and children in fighting to protect their human rights must not go unnoticed. We must continue to challenge the existence of these centers and force the President to acknowledge that detention worsens the trauma migrants have to live with and to recognize that detention is far from a humane response. On July 24, Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a number of policy reformsto address some concerns with detention centers. These reforms are far from sufficient. It is time we also acknowledge the incarceration of innocent people fleeing from violence is simply unacceptable. The Department of Homeland Security, and our government at large, ought to look at the abusive practices happening in detention centers and close them down.
This piece was written with Jessica Manzano-Valdez, Public Policy and Communications Intern at the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities.