OPINION

Opinion: These kids want their freedom for Christmas

President Obama has said to Americans that his deportation policies will focus on “felons not families,” but we have met hundreds of children in immigration jails who tell a different story. These children – nursing infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers and school aged – are fleeing unimaginable violence in their home countries, and are being re-traumatized by our government in a morally bankrupt effort to deter people seeking asylum. These children and their mothers are not felons, they are families with U.S. relatives willing to shelter and support them. However, they had the misfortune of seeking refuge in the U.S. at a time when our policy was not to help and protect, but to detain and deport.

As attorney volunteers who have worked with incarcerated families, we know the strength of their asylum claims and their commitment to appearing for their trials. We also know the value of representation: before volunteers could establish a regular presence in Artesia, NM, over 200 children and mothers were deported.

- Mary Neal and Daniel Thomann

While many of us are looking forward to spending time with family during the holiday season, these children long for the opportunity to simply be kids at home for Christmas. Unless our government makes good on its promise to detain “felons not families” then hundreds of children, with an average age of 6 ½, will be stuck in prison over the holidays. Children like*:

• Manuel from Honduras, who spent his fourth birthday at a makeshift jail in Artesia, New Mexico. He entered the U.S. with his mother in July and has been imprisoned ever since. Manuel suffers from regular vomiting and diarrhea, is refusing food, and has begun acting out toward others in custody.

• Hector from El Salvador. Also four years old, he entered the U.S. with his mother in July. On the long journey across Mexico, little Hector kept careful track of the prescription glasses he needs for a chronic eye condition. Once he entered the United States, those glasses were lost or destroyed by the Border Patrol.  As of last month he still had not received replacements. 

Jailing children is wrong. Jailing them with their mothers, who have made the agonizing decision to flee simply to protect them, is wrong too. The government acknowledged as much after lawsuits forced the closure of the disaster-plagued T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Texas in 2009. Now, less than five years later, the government has done a 180 degree turn, opening the largest family detention facility in American history in Dilley, Texas and expanding the site in Karnes, Texas to a combined capacity of 2,900 beds. Little Manuel and Hector are scheduled to be moved to the Texas jails before Christmas.

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Perversely, the government is spending an estimated $299.00 per day to incarcerate each child and mother while most have family in the U.S. eager to house them at no cost to taxpayers. The government’s policies are irrational: we have heard hundreds of stories of asylum-seeking families who were separated at the border. In some cases, our government permitted a father to enter the U.S. and await his trial date in freedom, while imprisoning the mother and children.

Some say we should immediately deport these mothers and children. But we cannot send people fleeing death threats, torture, and sexual violence back to countries which offer no protection. As attorney volunteers who have worked with incarcerated families, we know the strength of their asylum claims and their commitment to appearing for their trials. We also know the value of representation – before volunteers could establish a regular presence in Artesia, NM, over 200 children and mothers were deported. Since September, Artesia volunteers have taken 14 detained families through their final hearings with immigration judges, and won all but one case. We believe Manuel and Hector deserve to live with their families while they await their day in court.

On November 20 the President spoke about the exercise of discretion and about focusing on felons, not families. But the only reason these children are still incarcerated is that the President has ordered it. Please tell the White House these children don’t deserve to spend another day – including Christmas Day – in jail.

* The names of the children have been changed.

Mary Neal and Daniel Thomann of Chicago, Kim Hunter of St. Paul, and Jennifer Smith of Colorado are attorneys in private practice who volunteered with the American Immigration Lawyers Association's (AILA) pro bono project in Artesia, New Mexico. 

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