When Yaniret fled Honduras to escape a partner who had threatened to kill her, she didn’t imagine where her journey would end: A barren room in Texas, where she lay stripped and drugged, bloodied from self-inflicted razor wounds, with the laughter of the staff at the detention center ringing in the background. What really hurt, though, was the pain her five year-old daughter faced as she sobbed in a nearby room.
“I had no power, no control. I could not protect her,” the 29 year-old recalled in a recent interview, recounting through a translator the weeks in detention marking the start of her family’s new life in the country where she had sought protection.
There’s no way to explain to a five year-old why she deserves to be locked up, but that hasn’t prevented the Obama administration from defending its practice of detaining Central American women and children indefinitely, as mothers like Yaniret seek to claim asylum and resettle in the United States.
Last week, the government renewed its legal battle to preserve its authority to detain migrant families, arguing that preemptive incarceration is a reasonable response to an increase in border crossings from Central America.
But the lawyers who work with these families say the government has no right to preemptively imprison people on the suspicion that they will abscond from the law—they came, in fact, to seek justice, and they deserve humane treatment. “You can’t keep refugees in jail,” says Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigrant Justice Corps, an organization that has sent volunteer lawyers to aid detained families in Texas, including at Karnes. Though the pro-bono attorneys can make a crucial difference to individual clients, there remain thousands more detainees who are deprived of legal assistance. “It is not by accident that these facilities are far even from big cities in Texas,” Tiven says of the detention centers. “These are in the middle of nowhere because the government is not interested in having people represented by quality counsel. The government’s interested in having people rapidly deported.”
In February, a federal district judge blocked Homeland Security from detaining asylum-seekers, in response to a lawsuit brought by a group of immigrant mothers who charged that the government was illegally detaining them as part of a so-called “aggressive deterrence strategy.” Another federal ruling in July ordered the immediate release of mothers detained with children, noting the government had subjected them to “deplorable” and negligent conditions.