OPINION

Opinion: The children Michelle Obama didn’t mention

First Lady Michelle Obama in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016.

First Lady Michelle Obama in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016.  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistribu)

First Lady Michelle Obama has received widespread accolades from both sides of the aisle for her incredible speech delivered Monday night at the Democratic National Convention, sending a clear and sorely needed message of unity and hope to the Democratic party and the nation.

While I, along with everyone else, deeply admire Mrs. Obama as a brilliant orator, a strong leader, a devoted mother, for me, some of her words rang hollow.

The Obama Administration has decided to detain these families for the purpose of deterring others from making the journey, but this is based on the totally false assumption that a mother would choose death for her child in her home country over detention in the U.S.

- Lindsay M. Harris

This is because along with hundreds of attorneys and advocates nationwide, with the CARA Family Detention Project and others, I have spent time inside detention centers run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to detain children and mothers. The government re-instituted the practice of detaining families in the summer of 2014 following an increase in families fleeing violence in Central America and seeking protection in the U.S.

Earlier this year, for Mother’s Day, a coalition of immigrants’ rights and faith based organizations joined formerly detained mothers to deliver flowers to the White House for Mrs. Obama. Along with the flowers, we asked the First Lady and her fellow women of the White House to visit a family detention center and to join the call to end the incarceration of children and their mothers.

We received no response from Mrs. Obama, Jill Biden, Cecilia Muñoz (Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council), or Valerie Jarrett (Senior Advisor to the President).

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On Monday night, Mrs. Obama spoke on a national stage in Philadelphia of a brighter future for our children. This struck me as ironic when just 60-odd miles away in Berks County, Pennsylvania, lies a county run detention center, contracted with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where up to 96 mothers and children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are incarcerated, some of them now for close to a year. 

Their sole “crime”? Seeking protection from the deadly and targeted violence in Central America perpetrated against women and children by powerful transnational criminal organizations. 

The Obama Administration has decided to detain these families for the purpose of deterring others from making the journey, but this is based on the totally false assumption that a mother would choose death for her child in her home country over detention in the U.S.

Tuesday’s announcement that the Obama Administration would expand refugee processing programs for Central American refugees south of the border is certainly welcome. However, progress toward providing the protection these individuals deserve is moving forward in inches when what is needed is miles. 

Fundamentally, these drop-in-the-bucket goodwill gestures, while a nod to the gravity of the humanitarian refugee crisis south of our border, cannot undo the fact that hundreds of families are currently detained in detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas and Berks County, Pennsylvania. 

At the same time, the administration is aggressively seeking out contracts with new counties and jails to detain more families. An expansion of the woefully inadequate Central American Minor (CAM) program cannot undo the lasting harm already done to thousands of children held without their liberty for weeks, months, and in some cases more than a year.

So while I, along with Mrs. Obama, look forward to Hillary Clinton taking the reins and providing an example for our children in the coming year, there is much more that the Obama Administration must do to make clear that in America, we do not hold innocent families seeking protection behind bars. 

The Obama legacy on immigration, and on the treatment of children, depends on the administration closing family detention centers once and for all.

Lindsay M. Harris is an assistant professor of law at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington DC. She teaches in the immigration and human rights clinic and formerly worked for the American Immigration Council, as part of the CARA Project.

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