It's the time of year when politicians line up to praise mothers. Last year, President Barack Obama even issued a lighthearted public service announcement reminding his audience not to forget the holiday. But this year, thanks to some of those same politicians, more than a thousand migrant mothers and children in the United States will spend Mother’s Day behind bars.
As it happens, I’ve planned to be with these women today to hear about their experience fleeing their home countries and then being detained with their children in the United States. The U.S. started to detain women and children last summer, during a surge in immigration from Central America. With so many mothers and children being locked up, the government continues to construct space to imprison more than a thousand more.
It won’t be the first time I have visited the mothers and children in detention. Last summer Delcy (not her real name), who had been detained for two weeks with her 2-year-old daughter, told me that her little girl was so upset she was losing weight. “She just won’t eat,” she said.
Now some women in Delcy’s situation have been in detention for more than eight months. Some toddlers have spent nearly half of their lives behind bars. I expect that the mothers I’ll speak with today will tell me their kids are still suffering. Research shows that detention can be permanently damage children, causing anxiety, depression and even long-term cognitive damage.
Last month, some of the mothers held in Karnes City, Texas, who have spent the longest in detention declared a hunger strike to protest the harm done to their children. They wrote to authorities:
The environment our children are in is not good. Our children are not eating well, every day they lose weight, and their health deteriorates. We know that any mother would do the same thing that we're doing for our children.
The thing that many of these mothers have done — besides the customary herculean effort of motherhood — includes fleeing their homes to save their own lives and their children’s. One woman, Maribel, has a representative story. A political activist in her native Honduras, Maribel was targeted by gang members for her work securing electricity and drinking water for her neighborhood. She began receiving death threats and the gang shot a close friend for similar reasons.
She took her two sons and fled. With the help of volunteer attorneys from the American Immigration Lawyer's Association, Maribel ultimately succeeded in claiming asylum, but only after being locked up with her sons for months.
The hunger strikers allege that U.S. immigration officials and contract jailers from the for-profit GEO Group have retaliated by locking mothers in isolation rooms, threatening to separate mothers from their children, and bringing fabricated charges of insurrection.
One of the hunger-striking mothers told a judge that her detention center:
feels very much like a prison. They conduct head counts three times a day, just like they would do at a prison. They punish us for offenses as trivial as “disrespecting” a guard, which is also like prison. Children should not be locked up here.
Fortunately, courts are beginning to call for an end to family detention. In February, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled against parts of the Department of Homeland Security’s no-release policy, which stripped Immigration and Customs Enforcement of its discretion in releasing detained Central American families. Then, in late April, a California court found tentatively that the family detention system violates an 18-year-old settlement agreement obligating the government to treat migrant children humanely. The government has less than a month to negotiate an agreement about winding it down. It should do so quickly and fully.
Last Mother's Day family detention was an almost abandoned practice, relegated rightly to the dustbin of ineffective and harmful policies. Instead of detaining families with children the U.S. would register them and allow the immigration courts to weigh their claims to asylum, while formally supervising released detainees if necessary.
This remains a workable, humane and cost-effective way of both enforcing U.S. immigration law and respecting the rights of asylum seekers and children. It's also a great way for politicians to honor mothers with more than just speeches.