OPINION

Opinion: Karnes Detention Center for immigrants – A Hollywood façade of due process

Fade in … a young mother and her small children flee violence, crossing dangerous ground in order to ford a river and seek sanctuary in the promised land by finding a border guard and turning themselves in, to the mercy of the U.S. asylum process and a stay at a detention center. The mother has tears in her eyes, feeling that finally she has secured a future for her children safe from violence and persecution. Fade out...

Fade in ... a sprawling concrete, metal and glass structure in the middle of the Texas flat lands. From the outside, the Karnes detention center for women and children in this small town about 100 miles south of San Antonio has been better outfitted than other detention facilities for the temporary housing of immigrants arriving into the United States. But make no mistake, this structure, built to order for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Unit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has all the bells and whistles of a prison.

These are people. They are mothers and their children, separated from other family, from the language and community they know. They fled from a terrible place and toward a place of refuge, of hope, of safety for themselves and their children. They are asylum seekers deserving of and entitled to asylum protection.

- Annaluisa Padilla

One enters a holding area where the glass and metal sliding door behind must close before the other glass and metal sliding door in front will open, and as it opens one finally gets a sense of the overall layout of Karnes. To the right is the courtyard in the middle filled with mothers, some holding infants while others are looking out for straggling toddlers and several older children ages 6-11. Fade out ...

Fade in ... to the stories of the mothers and children imprisoned here:

A young mother told me in halting Spanish she “passed” her credible fear interview, was given form I-589 (this is the USCIS form to file an asylum claim) and was told to prepare it for her next hearing. The form is in English (which she cannot read or speak). She is not represented, but was told she could access the “law library” or call the list of “free legal providers” for assistance. The woman has a sixth grade education and speaks no English. The list of “free legal providers” is similar to one given to mothers in the Artesia, NM family detention facility which does not adequately reflect pro bono services in the area and is therefore a worthless piece of paper.

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Many of the mothers only speak indigenous languages, not Spanish, but are told: “We do not have interpreters in your dialect and if you want one, you may have to wait months or years. Do you want to be in here for years?” Such tactics are shamefully designed to intimidate mothers into accepting deportation rather than seek asylum, and AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association) lawyers have interviewed dozens of women who have been similarly intimidated in Artesia. 

Many of the children are losing weight from not eating — infants weighing 15 pounds are losing up to 40 percent of their body weight. But the mothers are told: “You are all from south of the border, you eat rice and beans and we make it with the special Tex-Mex spicy flavor. What? You do not eat spicy food in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras? How can that be?”  

Reiterated over and over: “Sign the form,” which is read to them in high school Spanish, “If you do not sign, you will go to jail for [5] years and we can take your children away from you and put them in foster homes.” Another pressure tactic to make them drop asylum claims. Our AILA members have interviewed hundreds of families in detention and have concluded that the great majority have valid claims for asylum — forcing them to drop their claims is an unconscionable violation of international and U.S. law.

And to a young mother after judicial review of negative finding of credible fear: “I find you credible ma’am, you have suffered violence in your country and your town, you testified credibly and I believe you, but you cannot stay, I find that you may be harmed if you return to your town, but you can move to another town in El Salvador.” Fade out...

As I leave the facility, I think of the airport announcement: “The white line is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only – no parking.” At Karnes we can hear “Karnes is for the immediate and expeditious processing of removals of women and children only, no bonds, no paroles, no stays.”

These are people. They are mothers and their children, separated from other family, from the language and community they know. They fled from a terrible place and toward a place of refuge, of hope, of safety for themselves and their children. They are asylum seekers deserving of and entitled to asylum protection.

What does our government give them? Sanitized isolation in a place where due process is left by the wayside and politically driven excuses that detaining families is an acceptable way to deter them from coming. These mothers and children are entitled to due process and a meaningful chance to explain why they are eligible for asylum under our own laws. 

Our government should be ashamed for speeding up their removal process, for locking up women and children despite the drain that detention places on both the psyches of these families and on the country’s budget. There is no good reason for this, and despite the Hollywood façade of Karnes, I know that it is a stain on our nation’s history.

Annaluisa Padilla is an immigration attorney and First Vice President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

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