RAICES released a report, “The U.S. Government Kidnapped My Son,” which details the experiences of fathers and sons detained at the Karnes Detention Center in Texas in 2018. RAICES worked alongside these families who were eventually reunited after suffering Family Separation 1.0 in the summer of 2018 under Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy.
The release of the report came just days after U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered ICE to release all children currently imprisoned in family detention centers with their parents for more than 20 days by July 17, 2020. Currently, there are just over 100 children, including Black and Indigenous children from countries like Haiti, Honduras, Angola, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Tajikistan, and Iran detained at the Berks, Dilley, and Karnes family prisons. At Karnes, where RAICES provides free legal services to detained families, 11 children and adults have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least three employees of The GEO Group, the private contractor that operates Karnes, have tested positive as well.
“Family integrity is a human right. We cannot allow family separation 2.0 to happen in response to Judge Gee’s order. No parent or child wants to be separated from each other. It is incumbent upon each of us to demand that ICE commit to a policy of family unity, not family separation. We demand an end to family detention, and an end to all detention. As we work to defund militarized law enforcement we must hold ICE to the same standard and instead invest in community-based solutions to care for people who seek safety in the United States,” said Andrea Meza, Family Director of Family Detention Services at RAICES.
The report finds that both detention and separation are harmful to children. “Detention of children causes irreparable psychological and physical harm with long-lasting effects even with periods of brief detention. There is no safe amount of time for a child to be detained,” said Matthew Gartland, Director, Massachusetts General Hospital Asylum Clinic and RAICES Volunteer. Gartland continued: “We encountered cases of harm and traumatization in our work with children and families in family residential centers in Texas. The conditions of detention have been made worse by the outbreak of COVID and inadequate measures to prevent infections among staff and detained families.”
In last week’s order, Judge Gee stated that it is “no surprise” that the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the family detention centers because of ICE’s failure to implement the CDC guidelines at the family prisons. Judge Gee underscored the urgency of her order to release children because Karnes, Dilley, and Berks are “on fire.”
Andrea Meza continued: “Judge Gee only has the power to order ICE to release children, not adults, from family prisons by July 17th. In her order she stated what we all know: ICE has the discretion and authority to release families together from prison, now. ICE must not use this order as an excuse to quickly deport families in unsafe conditions that not only expose deported families to COVID-19, but also spread COVID-19 to countries that – in part due to U.S. actions – are unequipped to safely receive people with COVID-19. It now depends on the community to raise their voices and demand that ICE release all families together, now.”
Judge Gee’s order sets another deadline: by July 8th, attorneys representing DHS and children in DHS custody in the Flores settlement must report on their efforts to finalize a process for parents to waive their children’s Flores rights. Such a process amounts to a formal “Sophie’s Choice” or family separation policy: it means that within weeks there may be an official, legal, process for ICE to ask parents if they want to be detained indefinitely with their children, or allow their children to be released without them, not knowing if they will ever see them again.
Matthew Gartland continued: “As Pediatricians, we have witnessed the consequences of the administration’s family separation policy, including children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), developmental regression, and other signs of severe traumatization. We believe these options — continued detention or family separation — are not a choice any parent should have to make. The way to protect the rights and health of children is to release families currently in immigration detention.”