I had written this blog post 2 days ago, but with the craziness of Artesia and 24 hours of traveling, I’m just publishing it now:
Yesterday was both inspiring and incredibly draining. I spent the day sitting through psych evaluations interpreting for a pro-bono psychiatrist, who was evaluating women and their children whose health, both mental and physical, has begun to deteriorate as a result of prolonged detention. The report generated by the psychiatrist would be used by the pro-bono lawyers and law students to petition for the women and children to finally be released after 4-5 long months living in prison conditions.
The women have all had positive credible fear determinations (indicating a reasonable potential claim for Asylum), but because the women arrived at the detention center’s beginning, they received bonds astronomically higher than the women who came later. The judges at the center’s inception were ill-prepared to grasp the driving forces of the migration of the women who were appearing before them and politically-motivated in their decisions. Lawyers on the ground report that these judges and government attorneys would literally read off a script as they either negated or set high bonds for release. As it became understood that these women and children were not coming to the US solely for the purpose of gaining employment or contributing to terrorist activity like the government and media has suggested, but rather to flee for their lives, it was clear that some changes must be made.
One of those changes was moving the court hearings from headquarters judges in Arlington, VA to US Immigration judges based in Denver, Colorado. Women whose hearings are being conducted with the Denver judges are currently receiving bonds from $1,500-5,000 as opposed to the $20-30,000 they received at the start and which women simply were unable to pay. Many women and children currently at the detention center are still there because they are unable to pay the unreasonably high bonds-they watch as other women and children arrive and then are released on lower bonds weeks later. Many of these women and children, who had the unfortunate luck of appearing before the Arlington judges, are slipping into deep depression and illness as the days go by in detention.
Over the course of 2 days, I sat through 7 psychiatric evaluations for some of these individuals. Gang violence, police corruption, and domestic violence were ongoing themes that have uprooted these women to leave everything they have ever known. These women have had to take a leap of faith and do whatever they can to save their children’s lives. While all of the stories were tragic, there was one woman in particular that struck me with her courage, strength, and deep sadness after a life of abuse and violence. The woman, who looked like she was close to my age but who I later learned was only 19, traveled with her young daughter from El Salvador. I don’t feel right disclosing the particulars of her hard life on the internet, but I can say that she has endured constant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse throughout the entirety of her life. It was finally when she began receiving death threats by gang members that she knew she had no choice but to get out. “My choice was to stay and watch my daughter die or to leave.”
The woman, who was able to make it through most of her story without tears, broke down when we began to talk about her life since detention. The ongoing PTSD she has from past instances of abuse has amplified since being detained. Her daughter, who is only 5 years old has lost 6 lbs in detention (as a side note, every single child I came into contact with at the center was ill, and their mothers complained that they would not eat). The mother reported that her child who was always happy, social, and agreeable, has become aggressive over the months in detention. She does not even like to be around other kids anymore. The mother states that she is never able to get any sleep because her daughter is restless at night, alternating between crying and screaming with terror.
By the end of the interview, I was in tears sobbing with the mother. She said that she had never told anyone the specifics of her past abuse and the horror she lives with every day. She said that there is no one in the world that loves her and has taken care of her or made her feel like she matters. She said that she knew if she had stayed in her country, her and her daughter either surely would have been killed, or her daughter would have lived through the same terror she had. This is a mother who is fighting to protect her daughter-she is not a terrorist and she is not here to take advantage of the system, as much as the media and political opinion would like to paint a picture to the contrary. She is the person I will think of when I am looking for strength and she is the reason why family detention needs to end now. In the week that I’ve spent at the Artesia Detention Center, in the chaos, stress, and uncertainty that takes place there, there is one thing that is clear: mothers and their children do not belong in jail.