By La Raza Centro Legal’s Immigration Law Attorney, Amanda Alvarado-Ford.
Imagine you are the parent of three teenagers under the age of 18. You live in an urban city in a Central American country, in a neighborhood notorious for illegal gang activity. Residents and business owners are routinely extorted by young male gang members for weekly payments of “rent” – the nonpayment of which will result in threats of immediate bodily harm to your loved ones. You do not doubt that these threats will come to fruition. As a small business owner, you make your installments regularly. After two years of payments to the organization, one of your teenage boys is on his way home and gets robbed at knife-point, his identity documents and cash taken and never recovered. Shortly thereafter, you receive a call from a gang member. You are instructed to go with the gang member who is en route to your house, to accompany him to the police station to act as the “mother” of the gangster who stole your son’s identity. That juvenile is being prosecuted for a violent crime he, not your actual son, committed. Under local law, a youth accused of such a crime may only be released on bail into the custody of a parent. Two gang members show up on your porch, one that stays there with a concealed weapon, and another who holds your three teenagers hostage in your own living room as you are taken to a taxi. From there, a third gang member takes you at gunpoint to the police station, and instructs you to tell the police the individual is your son. A young man you have never seen before, upon first glance, calls you “mom.” The policeman completing the paperwork looks skeptically at you and the defendant. At this point you are free to leave, so you return home only to find your teenagers traumatized and yourself wondering what your next step is. You begin to cry, and wonder whether you and your children can ever feel safe again in your own home.
With no other option, you decide to flee with your family. You go to the U.S. border, and expect that after you explain why you are fleeing and who and what you fear, you will be treated as a refugee, released, and given a safe haven. However, upon your arrival, you give a detailed account of your circumstances and are detained not just for two weeks or months, but for six months, with no release date in sight.
This series of events is one example of what actually happened to a family of Central American refugees who ended up in early 2015 in our detention centers in south Texas. In early January this year, I was part of a team of attorneys and a child psychologist who toured the Dilley and Karnes U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) detention centers. Our goal was to take declarations from detainees, to determine whether there were any violations of the 1999 Flores v. Meese Settlement Agreement delineating living condition standards, which must be maintained in the U.S. detention centers in which refugee minor children under age 18 are housed.  The settlement agreement is between the plaintiffs ACLU and other non-governmental organization, and the defendant Immigration and Naturalization Services (“INS”)- now known as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”); and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. I spoke with and took declarations from many detained mothers and teens; the above was the actual experience of one of these families. 
As immigration practitioners, one of the first principles we adhere to is to avoid retraumatizing individuals who may be refugees or who are victims of crime. Great care must be taken to treat this vulnerable class of people with respect, sensitivity, and human dignity. It makes sense for ICE to, upon interviewing individuals fleeing persecution, take biometrics of those with no documents, make a prompt determination of credible or reasonable fear, and if that fear isaffirmatively established, release them with a date to present themselves before an asylum officer or immigration judge. If the facts support a negative finding, they may be given a court date, or in the worst case, they could be deported back home. Notwithstanding this, the detention center at Karnes is holding individuals for many months, with no indication of when they will be released. Some in U.S. federal immigration agencies justify the lengthy family detentions by citing the policy as a deterrent to other Central American refugees who may be contemplating an undocumented entry at our border. However, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (“UNHCR”) Guidelines on the Detention of Asylum Seekers policy indicate that children have the right not to be detained unless a matter of last resort. 3 This is especially true upon claiming asylum in the country they have fled to as a refuge. A detention period of 6 months or longer is not our last resort as a nation; there are many more humane options to offer these asylum seekers. Since the U.S. is keeping certain detainees in custody for many months, this is an indication of violations of international asylum law within our detention facilities. The families I met with expressed that they were being re-traumatized, both due to their extremely lengthy detentions and the fact that parents were not in control of the daily decisions regarding their children’s activities and well being; rather, the immigration guards were in charge. It is difficult if not impossible for minor children to feel physically and psychologically well when their parents are not in control of their daily lives and their safety.Security (“DHS”); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”); and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. I spoke with and took declarations from many detained mothers and teens; the above was the actual experience of one of these families. 2
Moreover, another violation of the Flores Agreement I witnessed was the commingling of adults in the same living quarters as minor children who are unrelated to them. This problematic since children are a particularly vulnerable immigrant group; they have a high susceptibility to physical, psychological and emotional abuse by unrelated adults. Children need to be afforded the highest level of care and protection. Yet, the living spaces I saw at both Karnes and Dilley had mothers and unrelated children sharing the same environments. Much more must be done to ensure children are protected from the physical and emotional harm that can occur when they are in cramped quarters with adults who are strangers. This is especially true since these adult detainees are enduring immeasurable stress and anxiety; the potential for adult behavior that is not appropriate for children is increased due to the stressor of being detained.
Perhaps one of the most surprising facts I learned through taking declarations of detainees was that many mothers were, during the initial days or first weeks after entering the U.S., separated from their children for at least one night or a 24-hour period. CBP, DHS, and/or ICE officials have routinely separated mothers from their children approximately 12 years old and older at detention facilities in South Texas, used as “holding” centers prior to detainees’ relocation to the Karnes and Dilley centers. Mothers and their children are separated from one another for at least a day. Some teen boys I spoke with were detained in the same spaces as other teen males who sported easily recognizable gang tattoos. These young boys feared for their lives while commingled with the tattooed juveniles.4 Children have been placed in rooms together with other children of the same gender for an overnight period, and mothers have been similarly placed overnight in rooms with other mothers. Both parents and children told me that they were terrified at being told they could not stay together as a mother – child family unit. When the families were reunited after about a 24 hour-long separation, the families were tremendously relieved. This does little to explain how ICE, CBP, and DHS justify the act of separating mother and child, when under UN standards; a child must not be separated from his parent. 
A hallmark of both facilities is the penal nature of the detention centers. Fences that are approximately 12 feet tall encircle the compounds at Karnes and Dilley. Metal detectors and an x-ray security screening process are at the entries of the locations. A series of several metal locked doors must be unlocked before anyone can enter or exit. According the Flores Agreement, the detention centers must closely resemble and be in fact, akin to youth residential facilities. They must not be penal in nature. However, at Dilley and Karnes, guards are omnipresent, the detainees’ movements are monitored, and guards account for families’ locations several times daily. Detainees explained that they are peered in on, even while they sleep. What this means is, small infants through teens up to 17 years of age are being watched as they sleep at these facilities. While I was at Dilley, I met an official of the organization running the facility. He told me the organization was the CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. After speaking with him, it made sense; the place looked and felt like a location where individuals were under surveillance, rather than a childcare organization or a children’s residential facility.
Interestingly, the last violation of the Flores Agreement my team observed was the lack of licensing of the detention centers by a childcare licensing facility. Since the detention facilities are located in Texas, the licensing organization would logically be a Texas state department. One such organization that could possibly review the detention centers in Karnes and Dilley for compliance is the Texas Child Care Licensing (CCL) department of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). The mission of that agency is to protect children through regulation and education. Since the state of Texas has an interest in ensuring children within its borders are protected from harm, this violation seems rather straightforward to remedy, and should be made a priority.
If U.S. citizens were fleeing violence within our borders and entering another country as refugees, would we stand for American citizens being detained for 6 months or more with no planned release date? Could we accept that our minor children would be forcibly separated from their biological parents? Would American parents agree with having their children co-housed with unrelated adults, in a facility that was more penal in nature rather than resembling a youth residential facility? Clearly, Americans would be outraged at this conduct. The U.S. should not treat others in a manner we ourselves would not tolerate.
It is reprehensible that here in the U.S., immigration officials are detaining these families, comprised of mothers and minor children, for months on end in seeming disregard of the UNHCR internationally agreed-upon regulations the U.S. is a signatory to. In recent weeks, mothers living in at least one of the South Texas family detention centers have launched large-scale hunger strikes to protest their lengthy captivity and living conditions. U.S. refugee facilities should be a model representing the highest standards for human rights worldwide. The Flores Settlement Agreement was signed in 1999 to protect refugees from the types of violations that are occurring now. U.S. federal agencies should correct these violations because the U.S. is failing to provide the highest available level of protection of human rights, and it is unconscionable, since it has the capacity to adhere to the terms of the Flores Agreement and yet it is refusing to do so. U.S. citizens would never stand for this type of treatment. For all of these reasons, we should stand together to urge U.S. immigration agencies to immediately comply with the provisions of the Flores Settlement Agreement. Certainly, many nations would never level this type of conduct against U.S. citizens, nor against those from any other country. It makes one wonder why the U.S. believes it is appropriate and legal within its own borders to commit these atrocities against refugee citizens of other nations.