Happy Thanksgiving, 2015

Children walking at Dilley Detention Center

Children walking at Dilley Detention Center

Happy Thanksgiving, 2015.

It has been a year since my week-long volunteer in Artesia, New Mexico, during Thanksgiving week, defending women and children from Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) from deportation. The women and children were being held in a federal detention center, coined as a “family residential center,” in Artesia, New Mexico. But nothing about it was “familial”; with the ICE officers in their uniforms, the barbed wire fences that surrounded the facility, the requirement that the women and children be escorted to see their attorneys, the set hours that they may see their attorneys, the facility was in fact a prison. Since last year, so much have changed, and so little has changed.

Some highlights of the past year in family detention include:

In December 2014, the federal government closed down the Artesia facility. And it opened a brand spanking new “family residential” facility, in Dilley, Texas, transferring the women from Artesia to Dilley.

The legality of these facilities is now in question. In July, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee of the Central District of California ruled that ICE’s policy of detaining children for weeks and months, alone and with their mothers, violates a 1997 settlement in Flores v. Johnson, a class action lawsuit brought by unaccompanied minors fleeing earlier violence in Central America. That settlement holds that ICE must release immigrant children “without unnecessary delay” to a legal guardian or adult custodian and make “continuous efforts on its part toward family reunification.” By October 22, ICE must prove that it has devised standards and procedures to ensure that children are only held for short periods and in “facilities that are safe and sanitary, consistent with concern for the particular vulnerability of minors,” never in “unlicensed or secure facilities” except in extraordinary circumstances. “Our position is, [ICE] could comply with the law and with Flores by releasing these mothers and kids in a week at most,” said Peter Schey, executive director at the California-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and attorney for the plaintiff class in Flores.

Since this decision, ICE has released more and more mothers and their children. But without giving notice to the mothers or informing them of their rights, ICE officials put on ankle monitors on the women upon their release. Yet, the mothers had not been charged with anything criminal, and pending deportation cases have never been considered (because it is not) a pending criminal prosecution. The judge’s ruling did not include such condition of release.

Prior to the immigration legal community and special interest groups’ involvement and stepping in to represent the Central American refugees (some time by summer 2014), ICE was deporting them without a hearing on their credible fear (or reasonable fear, depending on the type of relief the mothers were qualified to receive), a legal procedure afforded to those who are making asylum claims in defense of the government’s deportation claims. Now, ICE is providing those interviews, as they should; but the asylum officers (who conduct the interviews) have raised the standard at these interviews. ICE has also taken the position that even while a review of a negative finding is pending, it may and it has deported the women and their children. Since November 11, 2015, there have been 5 deportations from the Dilley facility alone, more than the previous 4 months.
For those keeping scores, is this a win or lose?  What are we, a nation of immigrants from the start, doing?
If you are wishing everyone well and to have a Happy Thanksgiving, and praying for peace and happiness to all, might I challenge you to do something to make a change so that such wishes and prayers do come true.