World Refugee Day: Through A Mother's Eyes

Imagine a young mother who is abused and raped many times. She finally escapes to safety, fleeing along with her four-year-old son, but she is captured and held with her child in a prison-like facility for months on end without proper care, counseling, or any clue about whether or when she might be released. Feeling hopeless, she writes a letter in which she describes detention officials treating her "worse than an animal" and "killing [her] little by little." She then slits her wrists. While being treated medically and separated from her son, officials begin paperwork to send her home to face additional abuse.

This is the story of Lilian, a 19 year-old mother from Central America, who came to the U.S. in search of safety. But instead of freedom from abuse, she found brutality in confinement. It has been one year since the Obama Administration suddenly ramped up the practice of indefinitely detaining women and children, and now three centers exist with the capacity to detain thousands of these most vulnerable refugees -- the majority of whom have fled rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking.

Each year, on June 20th, we observe World Refugee Day to recognize the struggles and celebrate the courage of the millions around the world fleeing violence and persecution. They leave behind everything they know and love for a chance to live safely and with dignity. On this day, we honor refugees, and we remember our historic, legal, and moral obligation to protect them.

This year, I ask whether detaining refugee survivors of violence is how the U.S. government intends to live up to its commitment to provide safe harbor to the women and children who need it most. The setting alone creates a culture of intimidation, reinforced by guards who abuse and manipulate women in front of their children, threatening to deport them to further violence. The conditions in the facilities are inhumane and re-traumatizing to survivors of violence. I'm ashamed that this is our idea of progress toward refugee protection.

And I'm not alone. U.S. policy makers, including 136 Democratic Representatives and 33 Democratic Senators, recently issued strong letters pushing their own party's leader to change course and stop this inhumane, unreasonable practice. "We do not believe there is any system of mass family detention that will work or is consistent with our moral values and historic commitment to provide safe and humane refuge to those fleeing persecution," the Senators said. Hundreds of faith-based and other organizations agree.

And, if you don't want to take our word for it, listen to Dr. Satsuki Ina. She was born in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans and, now a licensed family therapist, recently visited women and children being held at the new family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Horrified to find parallels to the U.S. family internment camps of her youth, she was especially disturbed by "the evident criminalization of [the mothers'] efforts to escape violence and seek safety and protection for their children. To be imprisoned with their children -- infants and toddlers, school age and teens -- is not only unjust, it cruelly plunges them back into their past powerlessness and terror."

In asking why our government would imprison refugee mothers with their children, Lilian reasoned "maybe you are not fathers or mothers to understand...the suffering that we live in this place together with our children." Is this how we want America to treat refugees? One year since the Obama Administration's policy took hold, and on World Refugee Day, the writing is on the wall: we must end the misguided practice of family detention.

Tweet: @DHSgov: Putting refugee children and women behind bars is not American. On #WorldRefugeeDay, I ask that you #EndFamilyDetention.