John Moore/Getty Images

Central American refugees return with spring

But the failed no-release US immigration policy is not prepared to handle them

April 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

The kids are back. And once again, the U.S. immigration system is not prepared to handle them. Every spring, along with birds and butterflies, children and families desperate to escape violence in Central America and Mexico head north in increasing numbers. The U.S. response: more prison beds, more Border Patrol agents and speedy deportation proceedings. These responses violate the human rights of refugees, protected by both U.S. and international law.

The numbers of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border peak from March to June. The Border Patrol apprehended 3,138 unaccompanied minors in March, slightly fewer than in the same month in 2013 and 2014. The number of Central American migrants is expected to climb steadily through June, though not as high as last year’s record. And without record-breaking numbers, their plight is unlikely to make global headlines. This year, the cries of the children will not even reach our ears. We now have Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and a whole cavalcade of presidential aspirants to listen to.

The overwhelming majority of the child migrants and refugees come from Central America. They flee from Honduras, the murder capital of the world, from Guatemala’s organized corruption and violence, from the deadly gangs of El Salvador and from the drug-cartel-imposed terror in Mexico. Surviving rape and robbery, deadly deserts and La Bestia (the Beast) freight trains, the refugees arrive at the presumed safety of the United States. Unlike the migrating birds and butterflies, they find no welcome here.

Some will be immediately deported, without regard to their legitimate fear of return and likely refugee status. Many women and children will be imprisoned, joining thousands of last year’s refugees still languishing in so-called family detention centers. According to The Houston Chronicle, there is now “more space for families at detention facilities in Dilley and Karnes [in Texas] and up to 7,300 beds in facilities across the country for unaccompanied minors.”

The no-release detention policy of locking up women and children who have crossed the border was implemented last year to deter other refugees from following their path. McClatchy News calls this a “once almost abandoned, and highly controversial, practice.” The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the federal government, saying it is illegal to imprison immigrants “not because they individually pose a danger to the community or flight risk that requires their detention, but in order to deter other Central American migrants from coming to the United States.”

“A central element of international protection is the right not to be forcibly returned or expelled to a situation which would threaten one’s life or freedom,” according to the United Nations fact sheet on the principle of nonrefoulement. Moreover, all migrants, regardless of refugee status, are entitled to “minimum human rights and minimum standards of treatment.” The conditions in for-profit prisons where Central American migrants are detained fall far short of those standards.

Earlier this month, women at the Karnes family detention center protested the lack of food and medical care there. After five days, they ended their hunger and work strike when some were placed in isolation and others were threatened with immediate deportation or loss of custody of their children. After initially denying that any strike took place, the Department of Homeland Security is now investigating.

Imprisoning immigrants who seek refuge in the United States is not only inhumane and illegal, but it is also not reducing immigrant arrivals as intended.

The detainees resumed their hunger strike on April 15. “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, and all detainees, including those in family residential facilities such as Karnes,” the ICE said in a statement last week. But the GEO Group, a private for-profit company that runs the prison, considers protests prohibited actions, and staffers termed the strike an “insurrection.”

Many of the mothers at the facility, a 600-bed immigration prison, have passed their credible-fear interviews, the first step in the asylum process. They remain at the detention center because they have not been granted bond or because they lack the thousands of dollars needed to post a bond.

The Geo Group has about 78,000 prison beds in 98 facilities in the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Australia. In its 2012 annual report, the company (formerly known as Wackenhut) listed 13 facilities in Texas. Only the Corrections Corp. of America, with about 85,000 U.S. prison beds, is larger.

The market is good. The Cheat Sheet, an online media company that says it provides news for the “affluent and influential millennial business professional,” cheerfully advises investors, “Over the past several years, one of the best investments has been in shares of prison owners and operators.” Investor profits come at a high price in prisoner suffering. Across the private immigration prison system, complaint after complaint alleges sexual abuse, lack of medical treatment, arbitrary punishments and solitary confinement, unsanitary facilities, inedible and insufficient food and even undrinkable water. Immigrants have no right to lawyers, and few lawyers are available to represent them. When volunteer lawyers arrive, prison restrictions make representation difficult.

In February the feds moved inmates from the Willacy Detention Center in Texas to another for-profit prison after male immigrant prisoners at the facility staged protests, citing filth and lack of medical care. Willacy has since been shut down — the second time in five years that the for-profit prison was closed because of its failure to provide adequate care to inmates.

Activists are planning a large demonstration at the gigantic immigration internment center in Dilley on May 2 to demand the prison’s closure and an end to mass incarceration of immigrants. The Dilley detention center is planned to eventually house 2,400 immigrants.

The list of for-profit prisons continues to grow — Karnes, Willacy, Dilley, Artesia, Adelantado, etc. Some hold families; others house men awaiting deportation. The immigration machine grinds on, chewing up and spitting out lives.

While Central American families flee in large numbers, the overall number of undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. is the smallest in 40 years. Illegal entry is less than one-third its level in 2000, according to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. And the estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has dropped by more than a million since 2006.

Imprisoning immigrants who seek refuge here is not humane and not legal, and it is not reducing immigrant arrivals as intended. Instead of filling immigrant detention centers and the pockets of for-profit prison contractors, the U.S. government should strive to meet its domestic and international obligations. The law gives a high priority to releasing refugees and asylum seekers into the community while their cases are pending. And, when possible, unaccompanied minors need to be quickly placed with adult relatives. Asylum decisions are a matter of life or death.

Yet as the migrants return this spring, the White House’s blanket no-release policy will deny vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees the right to a meaningful hearing with representation by an attorney

Mary Turck is an adjunct faculty member at Macalester College and a former editor of The Twin Cities Daily Planet. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter