On Domestic Violence Month: Why Do We Keep Incarcerating Victims and their Children?

Since June 2014, the Obama Administration has locked up thousands of refugee mothers with their children in immigration detention centers: highly secured, prison-like facilities with minimal access to legal, social, or medical services. Nearly all of the mothers and children are applying for asylum - a legal path to protection provided under international and domestic law - and the great majority have experienced or are fleeing domestic and sexual violence. As Tahirih Justice Center explained in a report released this week, the majority of the mothers and children describe being beaten, raped, or threatened with murder, and have nowhere they can turn for safety back home.

Advocates across the country have been fighting for an end to this inhumane practice, but the Administration doesn't seem to be listening. Not only are record numbers of mothers with children being detained, but the Administration has not complied with an October 23 deadline for release of all children in detention set by a federal judge in August 2015.

As the Administration continues to celebrate Domestic Violence Awareness month and victories such as the historic Violence Against Women Act, it is time to think critically about whether we are willing to support and protect ALL victims of domestic and sexual violence, and if so, why we are treating refugee survivors in this way.

For many years, I assisted survivors of domestic and sexual violence as they navigated the immigration system, and I met with hundreds of survivors like the refugees crossing the border today. For the women I served, the emotional toll of the violence they had endured continued to weigh on them long after the scars had healed. Sometimes this was because it was harder to see and name the psychological impact of violence, other times because there was guilt, shame, and deep feelings of betrayal.

Activists and academics have spent decades developing research and tools to help us understand the context and impact of domestic and sexual violence. The trauma of domestic and sexual violence can impact, among other things, a victim's confidence and ability to act autonomously, and may cause severe physical, psychological, or spiritual trauma. This can add up to a sense of powerlessness and have effects long after the abuse has stopped. As such, to ensure that a victim feels safe and can begin to heal from violence, simply stopping or removing that physical abuse is not enough. In order to end the cycle and promote healing and well-being, all attempts to control the abused individual must end.

In immigration detention, the prison-like setting and the individual acts of guards and other staff can be seen as extensions of the eight abusive tactics found in a helpful tool for understanding domestic violence called the Power and Control Wheel, which are: coercion and threats; intimidation; emotional abuse; isolation; using children; male privilege; economic abuse; and minimizing, denying and blaming. For example, punishing a mother for complaining about the conditions of detention by placing her in solitary confinement is an example of the abuse tactic of isolation. Situations in which guards have threatened to separate children from their mothers as a punishment are examples of using children to enforce power and control. Verbal abuse, threats of immediate deportation, sexual propositioning, and other tactics by guards to demonstrate their power and control are examples of this as well. Detention re-traumatizes survivors and plunges them back into a state of relative powerlessness.

Survivors are also at the mercy of several different immigration officers before they are given a chance to speak with a judge, the only person who actually has the authority to grant asylum in the whole process. This means describing the sexual and domestic violence they experienced multiple times, sometimes in grave detail over several hours. This unnecessarily cumbersome and inefficient process is horrific for survivors, and the conditions and confinement of detention just add to the problem.

The negative impact of re-traumatization and disempowerment on a mother's ability to care for her children is significant. Detention is devastating to the parent-child relationship, as mothers are unable to fully address the needs of their children in confinement. Children also see their mothers' power compromised, which decreases mothers' ability to effectively discipline their children.

Furthermore, mothers and children have limited access to counselors with adequate specialization and capacity, leaving them to cope with disorders such as anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on their own. This results in suicidality, weight loss, and a range of physical health issues as well. This is not only inhumane, but makes advocating for oneself in legal proceedings next to impossible. In my experience representing survivors, I could not have done my job as a lawyer successfully if my clients had not had extensive support by expert, specialized counselors and case managers.

On top of this, access to legal counsel is severely compromised in detention. Lawyers from around the country have gone to heroic lengths, often on a volunteer basis, to travel to the exceptionally remote facilities and provide representation, but they struggle to meet the demands of the thousands of highly traumatized clients who need help.

In this system, there can be little doubt that we are sending many qualifying refugee mothers and children who have survived domestic and sexual violence back to face persecution, either because of the difficulty of expressing trauma to so many government agents or the impact of the conditions of detention. This means that because of detention, we are denying survivors their rights under both U.S. and international law.

To protect the rights of refugee survivors, and to encourage their healing and ability to live in safety and with dignity, the practice of family detention must end. As we spread awareness about domestic violence in October and throughout the year, I'm interested to know when the Obama Administration will see the trauma that its misguided policy is causing, and take action to protect refugee survivors.

Ashish Kapoor, Public Policy Attorney at Tahirih Justice Center, contributed significant writing and research to this piece.