After she arrived at an immigrant detention facility, a Guatemalan woman who sought out medical care for an ear injury and extreme pain was given a cotton ball, ear drops, and a mild painkiller. Her son, who had a severe cough which persisted for eight days, had a fever that went untreated. One six-year-old girl vomited blood for several days and was given emergency medical care only after she lost consciousness. Another eight-year-old girl regressed to breastfeeding after she stayed in detention for eight months.
These are just some of the details that five migrant women and their children are alleging in a $10 million tort claim, a precursor to a federal lawsuit seeking damages for the “abuse, neglect, and trauma” that they say they suffered at the hands of the Department of Homeland Security officials.
“By bearing witness and helping these women assert these claims, we are undermining the government’s narrative that this is a kindler [sic] gentler, detention policy,” Andrew R. Free, the Nashville, Tennessee-based lawyer representing the migrant women, told the Associated Press.
“When you consider the claims being made here, this is five clients, but they really represent the more than 3,000 folks that have been processed through these massive internment camps through this past year,” Aseem Mehta, a fellow at the immigrant advocacy group Immigrant Justice Corps, told ThinkProgress. “These five cases that were highlighted are just examples of what the government’s been doing to women and children detained, but it’s by no means unique. These are hundreds of other cases.”
Just last week, the Obama administration maintained that it should continue to detain migrant mothers and children when they cross the southern U.S. border. The administration insists that it’s already improved policies, anticipating that they would be able to release families entering in country in the future within an average of 20 days.
Advocates are skeptical about the policy change and are calling for an end to family detention altogether. “Despite their attempts to justly detain women and children, there is no way to justly do that,” Amy Fisher, the policy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), an advocacy organization that’s supporting the $10 million tort claim, told ThinkProgress.
An American Immigration Council report found that while the numbers of asylum claimants from Central America and Mexico have increased, both the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency and immigration courts have granted asylum at low rates to people from those countries.
“If you look at a lot of the claims that are a part of these lawsuits, a 20-day period in detention is 20 days too long,” Fisher said, adding that the Obama administration’s practice of “short term” detention is insufficient. “The appropriate response would be to allow these women to come to the United States and fight their cases and seek asylum in the community so that they can have quality access to legal services, psychological treatment because they are legitimately escaping trauma, and adequate access to medical facilities.”
Still, critics say that keeping migrants in detention is a necessary policy to deter future border crossers. “Without detention, there is no immigration enforcement,” Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the right-leaning immigration restrictionist group Center for Immigration Studies, told ThinkProgress.
Krikorian said he hadn’t yet looked at the tort claim from the five families seeking millions in damages, so he couldn’t comment on the specific case. “I, frankly, take these claims with a grain of salt because there’s a political incentive to make these kinds of claims,” he said. “My problem is why are they in detention at all? The reason they’re in detention is because their credible fear determinations have been approved, which they shouldn’t have. This administration approves 90+ percent of credible fear determinations.”
Krikorian added that migrants shouldn’t be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States because they should have completed that process in Mexico.
However, as Georgetown Law School’s Human Rights Institute found earlier this year, Mexican immigration officials fail to adequately screen migrant children for international protection, and children often don’t know they can apply for asylum in that country.
“Passing through Mexico is often the most dangerous and difficult part of the journey and there are no protections or rule of law at the southern Mexican-Guatemalan border, which is where someone would have the opportunity to make that asylum claim,” Mehta said. “We have an international legal obligation to provide asylum rights to asylum seekers.”
This isn’t the first time that migrant women have publicly called on the DHS agency to end family detention. Ten migrant women recently lodged formal complaint claiming that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency provided inadequate medicare care when they were detained in family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania. According to a 2011 ICE guidebook, immigrants should receive a “continuum of health care services, including screening, prevention, health education, diagnosis and treatment.”