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Stephanie waded into the Rio Grande clutching her 6-year-old son with no idea of what to expect on the other side. The smuggler that brought them from El Salvador left them abruptly at the river’s edge.
“I was really scared because I didn’t know where I was,” she says. “I wasn’t carrying water or food. I didn’t know what was going to happen. My heart was racing.”
On the other side of the river, Border Patrol agents in Texas took them into custody. Stephanie says the holding cell was freezing -- more so because their clothes were still wet from crossing the river.
“It was just really cold!” she says through tears. “My son was crying and saying, 'Mama, I can’t stand it.’ ”
Agents refused to return a sweater they had made Stephanie toss in a trashcan.
The next day, they sent mother and son to a family detention center in Karnes, Texas, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was holding hundreds of other women and children.
ICE started detaining Central American families last summer when an unprecedented number began showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Stephanie and Jose arrived at the Karnes family detention facility in early September. They were assigned to a room with three other families -- and confined there every night from 6 p.m. until morning. From their second-floor window, Jose could see cars passing by on the highway. Stephanie says he thought a door in the cafeteria was the way out to that road.
“Every day, my son would ask me, ‘When are we going through that door?’ ”
Many of the mothers and children Stephanie met had stayed three months, but that seemed really far off, so she’d tell Jose, “Soon baby, soon, soon.”
Stephanie recounts her story from her bedroom in a cramped, second-floor apartment just off a busy freeway south of San Francisco.
An immigration judge released her from Karnes in November, and she made her way here to reunite with her husband, Jose, who sought asylum in the United States last year.
As we talk, Jose sits on the floor helping Jose Jr. line up Matchbox cars to roll down a red plastic ramp.
Stephanie and Jose didn’t want their last names disclosed because they’re afraid the people they fled in El Salvador could retaliate.
Jose was a political activist there. One day, men from an opposing party attacked him.
“They threatened to kill me if I didn’t leave the country,” he says. “I still have a scar here on my lip from that attack.”
Stephanie says she was forced to follow months later when those same men came after her demanding $5,000. After harassing her for weeks, they phoned her one night to say, “They would give me one more day to get them the money. And if I didn’t come up with the money, I should get my coffin ready, and one for my son.”
Stephanie says she was fleeing criminal violence in El Salvador, but when she and her son arrived in the U.S., she feels they were treated like criminals.
“The government has a totally valid interest in sending a message to Central America,” Rosenblum says, “that people who don’t have a valid humanitarian claim are not going to be permitted to stay. And it’s better for people to get that message without traveling thousands of miles across Mexico and then getting deported.”
Half a dozen years ago, ICE shut down a detention center after a lawsuit charged that the prisonlike setting was no place for children. Since then, immigration officials have shied away from detaining families. But last summer ICE expanded family lockups. Officials report they detained nearly 4,000 women and their children through the end of January.
“That deprivation of liberty is wrong,” says Professor Denise Gilman, who heads the University of Texas School of Law’s immigration clinic.
She says ICE’s blanket detention policy doesn’t take account of individual circumstances.
“Frankly, it’s cruel to these children and their mothers who are fleeing horrible violence and have come here seeking help.”
Gilman and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing to stop ICE from locking up asylum seekers with children solely to deter others. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the policy.
The government has until April 1 to appeal. Otherwise the case proceeds.
In a written statement, ICE officials said they are “complying with the court’s order, which precludes ICE from considering deterrence of future migration as a factor in making custody determinations with respect to adults with children.”
Immigration advocates are also trying to end family detention by invoking a decades-old settlement (Flores v. Reno).
Nearly 20 years ago, federal immigration authorities agreed to minimize the detention of under-age migrants and move them to the least restrictive environment as soon as possible, such as the home of a relative.
Carlos Holguin with the Center For Human Rights and Constitutional Law says ICE family detention centers are the opposite of that.
“Anyone who’s been to the Karnes facility in particular will note that it is like an institution,” Holguin says. “It is like a jail. There’s a sally port one goes through after going through metal detection -- high block walls.”
Holguin says children aren’t supposed to be locked up in places like Karnes -- even with their mothers. He has filed a motion to force ICE to release them. A hearing on the matter was scheduled for next month [4/17/15] in the U.S. Central District Court in Los Angeles.
Government attorneys, meanwhile, will argue for broader powers to detain children. They say they need that to cope with the influx of Central Americans.
ICE recently expanded its capacity for families. Three centers can now hold 3,400 people at a time, up from fewer than 100 beds last spring.
Agency officials would only provide a written statement on family detention.
In it, they asserted that housing children with their parents is “an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries.”
But Joanne Kelsey, with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, says there’s no humane way to confine children, because it can break the family structure and cause lasting psychological damage.
“When a child sees their mother isn’t making decisions for them, that a guard is saying, ‘This is when you can eat, this is what you can eat, there is where you can go, this is what you can do,’ the child loses that feeling of protection.”
At the end of January, ICE reported 1,000 mothers and kids were still in detention.
Without an attorney, they have little hope for release or asylum.
In more than 7,000 family immigration cases recently studied by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 99 percent of those who lacked a lawyer were ordered deported.
But finding attorneys to take detainees’ cases is a challenge.
“These women are not only detained -- but they’re detained in a place that’s isolated and not easily accessible …,” says Lauren Connell, an attorney with Akin Gump.
Connell coordinated volunteer attorneys to help the families at Karnes.
The first time she made the one-hour drive down from San Antonio to Karnes, Connell remembers thinking, “Wow, this is far from where people are and can really help.”
Connell became Stephanie’s attorney and helped convince an immigration judge to free her while her asylum case is being decided.
Stephanie says that when she heard she would be released, “The first thing I did was drop to my knees and thank God for everything he had done for me.”
Stephanie’s now cleaning houses for work and her husband was able to get a job working special events. She says her slender son has re-gained some of the weight he lost in the detention center, but he can’t shake the memory of his six weeks there.
She says Jose “hasn’t forgotten. … He says things like, ‘Yeah, it’s like when we were locked up.’ He uses this phrase repeatedly to make comparisons or references back to that time ‘when we were locked up.’ ”
Stephanie has her day in immigration court in May.