Opinion: Immigrant women incarcerated with their children in Texas are the real Mamma Grizzlies

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Sarah Palin notably referred to herself as a “mamma grizzly.”  However, I spent the past week with the REAL mamma grizzlies, who are jailed with their children in Dilley and Karnes, Texas.

These mothers are not criminals. Their children certainly are not criminals. They are lawful asylum seekers who the Obama administration foolishly, cruelly, and wastefully believes can be deterred by a policy of arbitrarily jailing families.

These mothers are fierce.  Those who have had the ultimate misfortune of being imprisoned in Karnes went on a hunger strike last week to protest detention conditions and the mistreatment of their children in custody.

— Kim Hunter

At some recent point, these mothers decided they had had enough — enough of the domestic violence, the cartel murders of their close family members, and threats to their children’s lives. The only way for them to survive and keep their children alive was to flee Central America and Mexico and make the grueling journey to the U.S. These mothers knew they would face time in the hieleras (the infamous freezers where the border patrol initially detains recent border crossers, including those legally seeking asylum). They knew they could be transferred from the hieleras to the dog pounds – other border patrol facilities with high chain link fences. They knew they could face incarceration with their children. And still they came, undeterred and unbowed, because they are determined to survive.

These mothers are fierce. Those who have had the ultimate misfortune of being imprisoned in Karnes went on a hunger strike last week to protest detention conditions and the mistreatment of their children in custody. The Geo Group (the private prison company that operates the Karnes “family detention center”) retaliated against them by isolating them (with their children) in cells with the lights off as punishment. If solitary confinement in “civil detention” of mothers with their children is not cruel, then nothing is.

Many of these grizzly mothers are very young; barely adults themselves. Nineteen year old Claudia* (who has had just two years of education yet is bilingual in the Mayan language Quiche and Spanish) has become the go-to interpreter for all the Quiche speakers at Dilley. Fortunately for her, she can at least communicate with the guards and staff whereas her monolingual countrywomen cannot. Claudia is stuck in detention despite a strong asylum claim because a prohibitive bond amount of $10,000.00 has been set for her. She has no family in the U.S., though she does have a friend who is willing to house her and her son but cannot possibly post the bond. Claudia may even succeed with her asylum application while appearing pro se (on her own behalf), although she cannot read it because it is only in English. If the Obama administration followed its past policies of releasing asylum seekers who have passed the first stage of the process (called a credible fear interview), Claudia would have been released months ago and would be able to seek help with her application from the outside.

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Another young mother, Maria*, came to the U.S. at the same time as her sister. Both brought their young children, and both have suffered domestic violence. They crossed the border together, yet Maria’s sister was released to family members in Ohio while Maria waits for her court hearing in Dilley. Meanwhile, Teresa* came to the border with her husband and children. Her husband was released on his own recognition after passing the credible fear step, yet Teresa and their children are in custody. No one, except perhaps ICE, understands why members of the same family are treated differently from one another.

The Obama administration knows these mothers have a strong incentive to appear at their hearings and are not a flight risk; yet taxpayers continue to line the pockets of private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to the tune of $343.00 per day per mother and child to lock them up. And while CCA claims expertise in operating prisons, it was their failed management of the T. Don Hutto Center in Texas (where infants were infamously clothed in prison jumpsuits) that ended family detention in 2009.

The determination of the mamma grizzlies who reach Karnes and Dilley despite the threat of incarceration shows how foolish the Obama administration’s policy of detention as deterrence is. Prolonging these mothers’ custody by setting bond amounts that are unreasonable – and not requested of male asylum seekers who pass a credible fear interview – demonstrates the cruelty of the policy. Finally, $343/day per person is an obvious waste for a group that wants to have their claims heard. It is a grave injustice to incarcerate these brave women and their children, and one that will rightly tarnish the Obama administration’s legacy.

*Names have been changed