During this holy season of Lent in the Christian calendar, it’s time to reflect and act to help the most vulnerable in our midst. With harsh assaults on undocumented immigrants and refugees who must fear every knock on their door, many American citizen children are afraid to go to school, afraid of being bullied, and afraid to leave their parents who might be arrested at any moment. In Texas, these real fears are intensified with stories about building new walls on the border and about children like their brothers and sisters, refugees from the violence of poverty and gangs and drug lords, locked in residential detention centers in their state.
A ban on crayons. That’s what it came to at the visitors’ center at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, one of three immigration detention centers that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently uses to house mothers and children who’ve been stopped seeking asylum in the United States. Six volunteer lawyers who work with detained families wrote a letter to ICE explaining why they liked to bring crayons when they met with clients: “Having children color and draw provides a distraction for children while their mothers relate incidents of trauma, violence and abuse. Other children sit outside the interview rooms and draw at the tables, so they are not forced to listen to their mothers’ harrowing narratives nor witness their mothers’ fragile emotional states during these interviews.” But ICE determined some of the children were doing “damage” to tables and walls in the visitors’ center while coloring. The crayon ban was just another blow to children already essentially being housed as prisoners by the federal government. The latest memos from the Department of Homeland Security outlining plans for enforcing the executive orders on immigration issued by President Donald Trump mean the numbers of children and mothers being detained this way (in America) will only swell.
Family detention centers are just one way current immigration policies hurt children. The Karnes County center is managed by ICE but owned and operated by the GEO Group, a $2 billion for-profit private prison company that seeks to double the number of people it can hold there from its current capacity of 532 beds. Across the state the Southwest Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, can hold 2,400 people. Also managed by ICE, that center is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, also known as “CoreCivic,” a for-profit company that makes upwards of $260 million a year housing mothers and children at a rate of $300 a day, per detainee. In December a Texas court struck down a regulation that would have allowed these two for-profit detention centers to obtain state child care licenses. Children’s Defense Fund–Texas Associate Director Laura Guerra-Cardus, a medical doctor, was among those who testified that family jails are not child care facilities and that children held there with their mothers are not physically or mentally safe.
Bree Bernwanger, managing attorney of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, commented, “Yet another court has found that locking up children and their parents is not a form of ‘child care.’ It’s time for ICE to recognize that detaining families is illegal and these facilities should be closed.”
Following that ruling 460 women and children were released from the two Texas detention centers, flooding immigrant support networks in a surprise move officials said was unconnected to the loss in court. Many of those women and children had to be immediately hospitalized due to chronic conditions and other health problems resulting from their detention treatment. The centers have been the source of a number of controversies, including several alleged sexual assault and abuse cases and alleged use of solitary confinement as punishment for hunger strikes at the Dilley center. At the third ICE family center, owned and operated by Berks County, Pennsylvania, a group of 22 mothers imprisoned with their children between 270 to 365 days wrote a letter last year explaining why they were starting a hunger strike:
“We are already traumatized from our countries of origin. We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground. While here our children have considered committing suicide, made desperate from confinement. The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense. One of our children said he wanted to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare. … They grab the chord [sic] that holds their ID cards and tighten it around their necks, saying they want to die if they don’t get out. And the smallest children, who are only two years old, cry during the night because they cannot express what they feel. … We left our homes in Central America to escape violence, threats and corruption. We thought this country would help us, but now we are locked up with our children in a place where we feel threatened, including by some of the medical personnel, leaving us with no one to trust.”
The new executive orders on immigration could mean locking up more families and building more detention centers. This may be fantastic news for the private prison stock business and for-profit prison industry but it is terrible news for the thousands of innocent children at risk of inappropriate cruel and unusual punishment. Now there is another cruel twist: the Department of Homeland Security is considering separating children from their parents at the border. Parents would be detained while their children would be placed in the care of the government or sent to live with relatives in the United States.
It’s hard to imagine separating children and families even in familiar surroundings — and certainly not in a new country and in the horrendous situations we have seen these families face. I can still remember the overwhelming panic I felt the day I became separated from my mother at New York’s large Abyssinian Baptist Church right before a worship service began when I was about seven. In the bustling crowd going up into the balcony, I let go of my mother’s hand. Happily I was among friendly people who summoned an usher who took me down to the pulpit where the preacher embraced me and asked the congregation if anyone knew this child. My mother who had been frantically looking for me in the balcony stood and said yes and an usher reunited us immediately. But I remember the panic and fear. Nothing is worse than feeling abandoned and separated from a parent in a strange place with strangers. Is this how our nation is going to treat “the least of these” — our little ones? Surely we are better than this!
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.