Jailing Migrant Children Is Immoral and Un-American

As Americans, we cannot accept that our government is jailing child migrants. Last week I headed to Artesia, New Mexico, where I provided pro bono legal services to some of the 600 women and children detained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). The facility is about 3.5 hours from El Paso, Texas. It is surrounded by barren desert and hidden to the public by barbed wire and mesh covering. Behind the gates lies a largely untold story of human misery and suffering. The "inmates," including infants, toddlers, children and their mothers, hail from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The great majority are refugees. They cannot return to their countries because they will likely be harmed or killed. The U.S. Government justifies these detentions to send a message to other prospective migrants to deter them from coming here.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), through a cadre of attorney volunteers, has negotiated with DHS to provide legal services out of a makeshift trailer on the premises. Despite the concession, these migrants are denied due process and basic human rights. For example, though many detainees have viable asylum claims, and would otherwise be eligible for release on bond, the DHS routinely argues that the immigrants present a security risk due to the surge in migration. The impression among lawyers on the ground is that the "judges" are kowtowing to DHS's agenda by either denying bond outright or setting it at outrageous amounts. There is no easy fix to stemming the flow of immigrants across our Southern border. However, detaining these destitute mothers and children with no bond is no solution; it adds to the trauma they have already suffered and violates their basic human rights.

The Government is required by law to protect individuals in custody and must honor their human rights. Our Government is failing at both. We observed that many of the children suffer from diarrhea, fevers and other ailments. A domestic violence survivor I met with, had a 6-month-old who had twice been sent to the local hospital with viral bronchitis and fevers of 104 degrees. He required antibiotics, rehydration and nebulization treatments. When he was discharged, back to jail he went. The baby was whiney and covered with a rash when I met with them. Children are re-traumatized by being forced to accompany their mothers as they recount the violence they've suffered. I watched as a 4-year-old boy listened to his mother during her three-hour bond hearing. She told how gang members tried to cut her baby out of her stomach because they wrongly believed her husband was part of a rival gang. Later, as she crossed the Rio Grande to enter the U.S., she and her son almost drowned after falling from their raft. In response, the Judge set bond at $15,000, insisting that the mother and 4-year-old constituted a "security risk."

While in Artesia, I also witnessed the humanity of some DHS officers. I watched law enforcement officials carry sleeping babies and hand out crayons and coloring paper. The officers walk an uncomfortable line between enforcing the law and handling their child prisoners. But there is no two ways about it: these children are prisoners. They cannot leave, have no visitation rights, no meaningful right to bond, no access to schooling, toys or appropriate medical attention. They receive no food other than during set meal hours -- an inappropriate condition for children whose dietary needs do not conform to government schedules. Jailing these refugees is un-American and immoral.

The consequences of mistaken moral and political choices are often only apparent in retrospect. Remember, for example, the St. Louis, a German ship carrying 930 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The US refused entry. Many perished under Hitler. So too, by jailing these hapless migrants in the middle of a vast desert, we are effectively denying them entry to the US, as well as access to counsel. They have no meaningful opportunity to prepare and present their asylum claims. However, it is not too late for this administration to change course. At the very least, these mothers and children should be released on reasonable bond so that they can access the medical, psychological and legal assistance they need.

These migrants cross the desert, often surviving horrific violence and intense suffering because they have no other choice. They are inspired and drawn by the promise of America, just as other immigrants have been before them. Their vision should not prove to be an illusion. Every human being deserves the dignity and care that is compliant with domestic and international law regarding the treatment of refugees. President Obama, release these women and children before its too late. Your legacy and their lives depend on it.