Immigration is one of the most hotly debated issues in the United States, and immigration policies will likely become an increasing part of the national conversation as campaigns for the 2016 presidential race heat up.
But in the debates over amnesty, immigration crackdowns and the economics of immigration, the very people seeking safety and stability in the U.S. are often overlooked. And so are the many risks, abuses, and hardships they face on their journey to the U.S. and after they arrive there.
Many immigration lawyers and activists decry what they call subpar conditions and policies at detention centers, and point to the many ways in which immigrants are at risk of exploitation from people in positions of power, such as border guards and police.
A spate of reports came out in 2014 on sexual abuse and misconduct by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, with The Nation reporting that five migrant children accused agents of assault near the southwest border. In a particularly chilling case, a Border Patrol agent kidnapped and raped a woman, her daughter, and another teenage girl before killing himself.
Those cases highlight the extreme vulnerability of immigrants and asylum-seekers and the need for stringent oversight and hiring policies for the CBP and other officials working with asylum-seekers and detainees. Because of their often tenuous legal status, they can be manipulated and exploited with threats of imprisonment and deportation.
“Immigrant women, men, and children face enormous barriers,” says Juan Carlos Areán, Acting Chief Executive Officer of Casa de Esperanza and Senior Director of the National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities. “The biggest one is they live in fear. They are afraid of the police, with good reason. The police are corrupt.”
“The horror of family detention”
Asylum-seekers fleeing violence and persecution in Central America face high barriers to getting their cases heard and accessing resources in the U.S. that will help them plead their case. Many arrive in the U.S. with their children. There was such an influx last year that the government opened the Artesia Family Residential Center (AFRC), a temporary facility meant to help handle the tide of people seeking safety.
Immigration lawyer Angela Williams, who worked with detainees at Artesia, which is now closed, said, “The horror of family detention is hard to put into perspective. It’s exceptionally difficult because of the fact that they’re detaining children.”
Williams criticized the location, characterizing it as remote, removed from easy access to families or immigration lawyers. She recounted an experience with one asylum-seeker who was kept isolated with her son because of a rash on his arm. They were supposed to be isolated for 24 hours, but remained so for several days, according to Williams. The woman got sick and, according to Williams, was denied an opportunity to use the bathroom until she defecated on herself, in front of her young son.
A spokesperson from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said via email, “ICE takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care. It is impossible for ICE to address vague accusations made against residents’ treatment at AFRC without knowing the context and specifics of the allegations, including names, dates and locations. More importantly, ICE cannot research and correct the issues raised without this information. Accusations against our ICE officers are a serious matter, and are fully investigated.”
ICE maintains that “Adults with children in ICE custody maintain important rights, including the ability to seek asylum protection, to appeal adverse ‘credible fear’ findings to an immigration judge, and to seek legal representation.”
An ICE spokesperson said the department “ensures individuals access to attorneys, if requested” and that residents at Artesia had the option to file anonymous complaints about abuse or irregularities, but they never did.
Williams said language barriers may have prevented many women from understanding their rights or from communicating their cases clearly. She said some asylum-seekers spoke indigenous languages, not Spanish, making it very difficult to communicate. If this were the case, many residents, at Artesia and other facilities, may not have understood their rights and options while they were detained there.
She also said the facility’s policies and locations made it difficult for the women to contact family members and attorneys to help them plead their cases.
A humanitarian disaster
In a letter to President Barack Obama, the American Immigration Lawyers Association accused the government of building “a hastily conceived facility in Artesia to detain mothers and children and rush them through the deportation process.”
The letter referred to a humanitarian crisis in Central America that forced families to flee to safety in the U.S. and described Artesia as a “due process failure and a humanitarian disaster.”
The criticisms raised about Artesia should inform future policies, especially when it comes to providing adequate legal resources to asylum-seekers and ensuring they understand their rights and how they can plead their cases. Language and cultural barriers are particularly important to address.
“The asylum office does try to get interpreters, but in many cases they’re not able to, and many indigenous language speakers end up languishing in detention for months,” said Karen Lucas, a legislative associate at the AILA.
Lucas and others have called on the Obama administration to enact humane policies toward asylum-seekers, especially those fleeing extreme violence. Speaking about the influx of people at the border last summer, she said there is a “regional refugee crisis … [and] the administration decided to respond with a show of force.”