Immigration detention centers are inflicting harm on the families inside — and out

President Obama should end the inhumane incarceration of immigrants in detention centers, one advocate argues

Detainees at the Breks Detention Center in Pennsylvania hold a "We Want To Be Free" sign. (Hiro Nishikawa)

For any parent, celebrating a child’s birthday, as I did this past weekend, is a joyous milestone. But, when one knows of children who mark off another year locked up in immigrant detention, it’s an event marked with heaviness.

The Obama administration had largely ended the practice when it stopped detaining families at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas in 2009. But in response to families who arrived at the border seeking asylum last summer, President Obama made a mistake in reversing that policy. Now, he has come under fire, facing multiple legal challenges and widespread scrutiny once again. But, incarcerating asylum seeking mothers and children is not an exception. It is a window into a broader detention crisis, and the administration should use the current outcry as a moment to reevaluate the entire immigrant detention system.

Detained women have overcome the odds to expose what’s going on inside ICE custody and to exert new pressure on the president to act. In the past three months, women held with their children in the Karnes County facility in Texas performed hunger strikes, exposing abuse and mistreatment and demanding their freedom. Mothers at the Berks detention center in Pennsylvania, who earn $1 a day, launched a work stoppage to protest their prolonged incarceration. Meanwhile, activists have rallied at the Dilley detention center in Texas, and in vigils across the country to support their whistle blowing.

While family detention was already a violation of universal human rights, it’s also now the focus of widespread outrage. Last month, 136 Congressional Democrats sent a letter to the president calling on him to end what they called “an abomination” of U.S. policy. At a roundtable in Nevada, Hillary Clinton said, “I do not think we should put children and vulnerable people into detention facilities because I think they are at risk. Their physical and mental health are at risk.”

From the women I’ve met who have been inside those detention centers I know how irrefutable those words are. I’ve seen their averted eyes and underweight children. One in 10 people in detention are women, including approximately 75 transgender women held in custody at any given time. They face the worst of our immigration policy, which The New York Times describes as “breeding cruelty and harm.”

And when a father is detained, it’s most often his wife and children on the outside leading the fight for his release and facing the emotional and economic hardship of not having him home. A mother like Alma was never in detention herself, but because her husband was detained and deported, she works day and night to make ends meet. And in her few hours of rest, she reports being unable to sleep because she is so worried about her children’s futures. Rubie, a computer science student, endures periods of going hungry since her father was detained. Without him providing for the family, there just isn’t enough to go around.

The current immigration detention system is inflicting extreme harm on the families locked inside it as well as those outside its walls who depend on their detained loved ones. To stand with immigrant mothers and children is to advocate against a system that invests in cages instead of schools, and jails instead of job opportunities.

The brave women and children who have taken action despite intimidation by guards are on the front lines, calling for us to follow their courage. Most attention related to immigration right now is focused on the deferred action programs announced by the president last November and when they will finally be implemented. But our families can’t wait for delayed relief. President Obama should show his commitment to making our immigration system more humane by ending the practice of immigrant detention, starting with releasing detained mothers and children. It is not an action enjoined or delayed by a panel of judges, but something that can happen immediately. With the year and a half that President Obama has left in office, he can still release these families from such unnecessary suffering and end unjust and inhumane incarceration.

Andrea Cristina Mercado is a mother of two and the co-chair of the We Belong Together Campaign, a sponsor of the July 7 – 11 Week of Action to End Immigrant Detention.

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