On Friday July 24th 2015, Federal Judge Dolly Gee of California ruled that the “deplorable conditions” in several detention centers in Texas that house women and children violate the minimum legal requirements for institutions that house children. She declared that the families should be released as soon as possible. She gave the Obama administration until early August to make a response. A later court upheld her decision.
Immigrant advocates hope this ruling is the beginning of the turning of the tide against family detention centers. Although the Obama administration spoke of the family detention program as an attempt to keep mothers and children together, migrants held there consistently report the deplorable conditions they encounter at the detention centers. They report having to stay in tiny places crowded with many people, especially when first apprehended at the border. Often they report these institutions as being freezing cold, calling them “the freezers.” Advocacy groups, religious leaders, and human rights organizations cry out that these detention centers are no place for women with children. On Friday, Judge Gee agreed.
We here at Casa Juan Diego also feel encouraged by this ruling, for it is a step in the right direction toward getting rid of the terrible conditions in detention centers. But we also wish to stress that it does not take into account the fathers involved. If an entire family comes over the border, under this ruling the mother and children might be released from detention, but the father will stay in detention as a sort of “bargaining chip” so that the family must cooperate with immigration. With the father detained, it is nearly impossible for the woman to support and care for the children alone.
Over the years, Casa Juan Diego has taken in a number of women and children whose husbands or fathers were in detention centers and who had nowhere else to go. We see firsthand the effects of the trauma of detention centers and of separating families. We hear the stories of the “freezers.” Even more often, we see ourselves how children suffer when they don’t have both parents with them. For one, they simply lack the proper amount of attention and so they crave it and sometimes act out in order to get it. Furthermore, in many cultures the woman is the primary nurturer and the father the primary disciplinarian. With the father gone, the mother is left to fulfill both roles – all roles, actually. She is sometimes culturally unprepared to be the disciplinarian and physically and emotionally overtaxed by having to care for the children all day, every day, as well as deal with navigating the immigration system, the language barrier, and a whole new country. The mothers that we know in this situation are overwhelmed. When they do get a rare letter from their husbands or get to speak to them on the phone, the relief on their faces and the obvious hope it brings them makes it clear to us what they need: the comfort of a partner and supporter in this strange land where they have no one else but each other. But many spend months without even knowing where their husbands are. Oftentimes, they find out that their husbands have been deported – fathers who may never see their children again.
We at Casa Juan Diego do not have the answer to how the administration should deal with families, but we do know that keeping families together must be part of it. Sticking up for women and children in detention centers is a good first step. We hope to see further legislation on the treatment of the undocumented that will place family life and family unity as the top priority.
Houston Catholic Worker, ßeptember-October 2015, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4.