Opening Not Just the Door, but Our Hearts

The national debate over the US immigration detention and deportation system has come into sharp focus with the response to the Central American children and families who are fleeing violence and persecution to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border. Responding to this humanitarian crisis will require relief efforts to support the women and children and organizing and advocacy against proposals to detain and deport them.

As we face this crisis, we are encouraged by the fact that there is a powerful immigrant rights movement here in Texas and beyond that is pushing for an end to detention and deportation on multiple fronts. Part of this movement has galvanized under the banner of Not One More/ Ni Una Más by pushing to stop the deportations that result from local police collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In progressive Austin, Texas, undocumented members of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition and their allies have led a campaign to push the County Sheriff’s Office to end its use of ICE detainers under the misnamed “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) program. That local grassroots campaign — called “19 Too Many/19 Demasiados” for the 19 immigrants who are deported every week from Travis County because of S-Comm — recently won a 7-0 vote in the Austin City Council to recommend ending the program and find ways to stop city funding from supporting it.

Meanwhile, immigrants in detention and their allies outside have simultaneously organized for an end the immigrant detention quota that mandates that 34,000 immigrants are locked up every single day. The quota is set by Congress and directly benefits a private prison industry that invests heavily in lobbying the appropriations committee to keep the quota. The advocates who are fighting back against this quota include members of Texans United for Families. We have taken on this fight because we recognize that immigrant detention — which is a human rights violation in and of itself — is driving the record-breaking deportations of the last seven years.

It is in this climate of organizing and advocacy against detention and deportation that we watched as communities in South Texas and beyond have launched an inspiring response to the humanitarian crisis by opening their arms to provide shelter, clothes, and resources to unaccompanied children and families seeking to resettle.

However, we have to acknowledge that the obstacles we face are real. President

Barack Obama, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and others have irresponsibly called the influx of those seeking asylum at the border an issue of failed immigration reform. But this obscures the truth about the families who are coming to the border. The fact is these asylum-seekers are fleeing violence and terror in their home countries that has often been driven by US policy abroad.

Making things worse, the Obama administration has just requested an additional $3.7 billion that would mostly be spent on border enforcement, detention, and deportation. The request comes despite the fact that federal spending on immigration enforcement already surpasses all other federal law enforcement activities combined. A call for the swift deportation of immigrant children has been embraced by some members of both parties. Shamefully this includes Texans Senator John Cornyn and

Representative Henry Cuellar who introduced the “Humane Act,” a misnomer for legislation that would expedite the deportation of children by gutting a 2008 law meant to protect victims of human trafficking.

Furthermore, included in the administration’s supplemental spending request is $897 million to detain and deport asylum seeking families. Reports have emerged from DC that the administration may be considering more than 6,000 new family detention beds, a whopping increase from only 80 beds for families. The administration has already begun sending asylum-seeking refugee families to be housed at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. On July 14, the administration callously announced the deportation from that facility of 38 mothers and children to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the world’s highest murder rate.

We were disheartened in Texas to learn that family detention would not be confined to New Mexico and that the policy would be returning to our state. ICE announced on July 18 that the Karnes County Civil Detention Center, southeast of San Antonio, would be used to detain women and children as soon as August.

The detention of families at Artesia and Karnes are major setbacks in the fight against detention. Apparently, the administration has forgotten the shameful history of family detention in the US that spans from the Japanese internment to the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. Families were detained at Hutto — a privately operated prison located just outside Austin — from 2006 to 2009. During that time, reports quickly emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open-toilets, were subjected to highly restricted movement, and threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight.

The facility quickly became the nation’s most controversial immigration detention facility. In 2006, Texans United for Families organized the first vigil outside of Hutto to draw media attention to conditions faced by children at the detention center. The facility was sued by the ACLU and University of Texas Immigration Law Clinic. Ultimately, following an organizing campaign that included 100 actions in the first 100 days of the new administration, Obama announced in 2009 that he would end the practice of detaining families at Hutto. Since 2009, families have largely been allowed to fight their immigration cases while living in communities under alternatives to detention programs. When family detention at Hutto was ended in 2009 and no plans for new centers were announced, it was a victory for human rights and dignity.

The history of Hutto makes the Obama administration’s current request for hundreds of millions of dollars to ramp up detention and deportation of refugee families and children all the more shameful.

Fortunately, the outcry to recent proposals was immediate. Refugee, faith, and legal organizations all uniformly opposed expanding family detention, arguing that community support programs and relief efforts are much more appropriate for asylum-seeking children and their families. More than 100 organizations signed a letter organized by Grassroots Leadership and the Women’s Refugee Commission. It’s not too late for the administration and Congress to change course and demand an end — not an expansion — to family detention. When asylum-seeking families and children show up at our doorstep, we are obligated to open not just the door but our hearts. Detention is not appropriate for any immigrant, much less a family or child fleeing persecution and violence. If all the Obama administration has to offer these families is a faster track to lock-up and a ticket back to a violent country, it will go down as one of the more shameful responses to a humanitarian crisis in US history. The way to stop this disgraceful act is through multi-pronged organizing across the country.

We are ready to be part of that organizing. Our efforts will be focused on fighting the horror that is family detention. Though the obstacles are great, we have years of deeply rooted local organizing against detention and deportation to draw on. We look forward to the day we can write about the victory against the return of family detention.

Cristina Parker is Immigration Projects Coordinator and Bob Libal is Executive Director at Grassroots Leadership in Austin, Texas. Both are members of Texans United
for Families, a RESIST grantee.