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April 1, 2015

Going Bare Against the Perils of the World

Filed under: Uncategorized — baseball91 @ 8:38 PM
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This is a reblog about the unseen things out there, mindful of the horrors of life in Europe in the late 1930s. Only this piece is written by an Olympia, Washington immigration attorney after she spent time in Artesia, New Mexico witnessing in late 2014 mostly man’s inhumanity to woman. The author is Jane O’Sullivan who should be read. 

 

Fifteen years ago as a Maryknoll volunteer in Bangkok, Thailand, I visited the immigration detention center there with two Maryknollers, Father Thomas Dunleavy and Brother John Beeching. I was shocked and heartbroken to see young Burmese children and their mothers detained in crowded cells in Bangkok. The Burmese government’s assault on ethnic minorities was well known at that time, yet these families were locked up and denied refugee protection. I couldn’t have imagined that one day I would see a similar situation here in the United States.

The Bangkok experience motivated me to become an immigration and asylum attorney. Recently volunteering with the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Pro Bono Project, I came to know some of the 1,400 mothers and children detained in Artesia, New Mexico, between June and December 2014 by the U.S. government. Arriving at our southern border, they had expressed fear of returning to their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. However, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s current policy is to detain such refugees without bond for the duration of their asylum proceedings, which can take many months.

The average age of children detained in Artesia was 6 years old. The youngest child I saw was 6 months old, while many more were toddlers, preschoolers and school-aged kids.

As in Bangkok, these refugee children were suffering many ill effects of their detention. Again and again mothers told me their children were not eating or playing as they did before. They spoke about their children’s weight loss, lethargy, hair loss and persistent fevers. Some mothers were worried about their children’s deep sadness and frequent tears, while others mentioned the self-harming behaviors their children had developed during detention.

One 4-year-old boy, Juan Carlos (not his real name), had arrived in detention three months earlier. His mother fled with him from El Salvador after gang members had tried to kidnap him. Since arriving at the detention center, Juan Carlos had lost eight pounds. He often refused to eat the unfamiliar food at mealtimes, and his mother was not permitted to bring any food back to her room to feed him later. While I asked his mother questions to prepare a request for bond, Juan Carlos stayed at her side and gave her a hug and kisses when she broke down in tears.

I spent each of my days in Artesia working in a windowless metal trailer alongside Julisa Aguilar, a social worker from Seattle who translated for me. Eight other legal volunteers, both attorneys and law students, worked with us. Court also took place in a trailer, the immigration judge at a bench hundreds of miles away in Denver. More windowless metal trailers housed the women and children, and others contained the bathrooms that families had to ask permission to use. This large cluster of metal trailers in the desert, surrounded by barbed wire fences, made a strange sort of village. It was filled with women and children and presided over by mostly male guards. It was a village where the passage of time was punctuated by mandatory head counts.

As attorneys, we had meetings with 60 or more mothers each day. We also attended court hearings and asylum interviews with these courageous women. For some, despair turned into hope when asylum was given or a reasonable bond was granted. For others, there was no good news yet, and the only option for the mothers was to carry on caring for their children as best they could within the barbed wire fences.

On Dec. 15, the U.S. government closed the Artesia facility and transferred the remaining families to a family prison in Karnes, Texas. They joined hundreds of other Central American mothers and children detained at the Karnes prison since August. It grieved me to think of the many babies, toddlers, children and teenagers at Karnes who woke up on Christmas day behind bars.

I struggle to find words to explain to my own young children what is happening. Our government’s rationale that family detention is necessary to discourage other would-be refugees can never justify the harm to the detained children that I witnessed firsthand. Fear that these families are economic migrants instead of bona fide refugees has been proven groundless as asylum has been granted to each detained mother whose case has reached the final hearing stage.

In the words of martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” These refugee women and children have known great pain and shed many tears, both in their home countries and during their detentions after arrival. Let us walk with them, cry with them, and show them the hospitality that Scripture moves souls to feel. 

Jane O’Sullivan is a Maryknoll Affiliate in Olympia, Washington. She wrote this for the March/April edition of Maryknoll magazine.

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