In Texas, N.C. attorney finds ‘jail’ for immigrants

I am celebrating Passover, or Pesach, as it is known in Hebrew, in the small town of Pearsall, Texas. During Passover, Jews around the world commemorate the many miracles that we believe helped our ancestors survive while fleeing bondage in Egypt. It is told that the Red Sea parted, allowing Moses and his followers to safely pass while swallowing Pharaoh’s army. When they ran out of food and water, manna miraculously appeared.

While the nearest supermarket with any Passover foods is over an hour’s drive, I don’t think I have ever felt closer to the true meaning of the holiday.

Normally, I work in Hillsborough, N.C., as an attorney helping the local immigrant community. But, for a month, I am volunteering with the CARA Project, a group of lawyers and legal assistants representing mothers and children held at the so-called “South Texas Family Residential Center.” The detention center is better known in immigrant rights circles as “Baby Jail.”

Most of the 1,000 women and children detained here also crossed deserts and other dangerous terrain seeking safety. The Rio Grande did not part; instead they risked drowning while swimming across or floating on flimsy rafts. An army in chariots didn’t chase them, but they did endure robbery, rape, assault and extortion from gangs and corrupt border guards as they made their way north.

My analogy only goes so far. My clients are not fleeing slavery per se, but they are risking their lives and the lives of their children not simply to toil in our shadow economy. They are refugees. Some fled violence at the hands of members of transnational criminal organizations, including the rape of girls as young as 12 or being forced to be the “girlfriend” of a gang member or face the consequences. Gang members ordered young boys to act as lookouts for the police or rival gangs, or risk that they or their family members would be murdered. Others are fleeing horrendous domestic violence to which the authorities turn a blind eye.

Without CARA staff and volunteers few of these families would be able to find an attorney. It is not by accident that the U.S. government put this place over an hour from the nearest city of any size.

The legal visitation trailer is a constant hive of activity, attracting several dozen families a day. But what is most startling is the contrast between the illusion of normalcy on the surface and the unimaginable reality underneath. Children run around chasing each other in endless circles. Mothers, many of whom are breastfeeding, chat with each other. Meanwhile, in small rooms off to the side in private, these mothers recount the reasons they fled their home countries so they can be prepared for their initial interviews with asylum officers.

Make no mistake, this is a prison and none of the families I meet should be here. Many of the children refuse to eat because they are under such stress. Even basic medical care is lacking. Mothers with seriously sick kids are unable to get them care. The only “treatment” they receive while in custody is being told to drink more water, as though the recurrent fevers, diarrhea, and stomach infections will somehow clear up on their own.

The center is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars per year. The Obama administration justifies holding these women and children in detention to deter other refugees attempting to make the same journey. But that “detention as deterrence strategy” not only violates basic principles of human rights but U.S. law as well. If President Obama truly wants to focus enforcement on “felons not families,” this jail needs to close.

While calling this place a family residential facility would no doubt please a Madison Avenue marketing genius, it doesn’t change the fact that it is clearly just a prison. Prisons should be for dangerous criminals, not families fleeing danger.