WASHINGTON, D.C. — Oscar Herrera has spent the past 11 months hoping that the government would release his wife and daughter from the Karnes County Residential Center, a family immigration detention center, located in Karnes City, Texas. Fleeing violence in El Salvador, Herrera’s wife Karen Morales Sanchez, 25, and their eight-year-old daughter Yoana made the 1,600-plus mile trek to the southern U.S. border, pleading for asylum to stay in the country. But once Herrera’s wife and daughter surrendered to Border Patrol agents, they were put in the Karnes detention facility, without given the ability to pay a bond to secure their conditional release.
Karen and Yoana’s extended stay isn’t new among immigrant detainees at Karnes. Between October 2013 and September 2014, more than 68,541 unaccompanied migrant children as well as 68,445 family units comprised of migrant women and their children entered the country through the southern border. In response, the Obama administration took an “aggressive deterrence strategy” that aims to deter would-be migrant border crossers by holding those who have already crossed in detention without the option to pay bond.
In a recent letter to President Obama calling on the government to release them from detention, 19 mothers currently detained at the Karnes facility stated, “We ask that you free us and grant us refuge. Please give us a chance to demonstrate to you that we are honest, responsible, and hardworking mothers. We want our children in the future to be men and women who benefit society.”
All the women who signed the letter have “prior deportation” orders from when they were previously caught at the border and deported back to their countries. The women explained in the letter, “Immigration doesn’t want to release us because we have a prior deportation. Many of us have never lived in the country before: in the past we have come and, as we entered the country, we were caught and deported. And now that we are here again, because of this prior deportation we feel that we are being treated as if we were serious criminals because we have no rights to anything. We go before the judge but he tells us that it is not in his hands to grant us a solution, but that immigration can release us.”
“They didn’t want to let [my wife and daughter] into the country, but they also don’t want to let [my wife and daughter] out of the detention center either,” Herrera told ThinkProgress on Monday. Along with immigrant advocates from Human Rights Alliance for Children and Families and Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Herrera was protesting in front of the White House to call on the president to “release all families in detention and to end the punitive practice immediately.”
Herrera said that he saves up $100 every week to deposit to his wife’s account in the detention center so that she could spend money to buy food for Yoana, stating, “It’s ugly inside the detention center. The food — it’s so bad. Sometimes [the guards] also treat them badly inside.” The cost isn’t trivial for Herrera, an undocumented immigrant who works at a Virginia-area restaurant, saying that he also deposits $50 every week so that he can talk with his wife and daughter on the phone every day for 15 to 20 minutes a day at a rate of 50 cents a minute.
The group planned to deliver two letters, one written by migrant women and another signed by 500 scholars, asking Obama and other members of Congress to release mothers and children from detention. Letters will be delivered to Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) to highlight the impact of family detention centers. The Karnes detention facility is in Hinojosa’s district.
Over the past year, family detention centers became the subject of intense scrutiny by immigrant advocates who accuse officials of mistreating immigrants. Migrant women have twice gone on hunger strikes at Karnes to protest medical conditions and the lack of appropriate food. Because Karnes County, Texas sits on one of the most active drilling sites used for fracking, the water at the detention center has to be heavily chlorinated, which often causes stomach issues for detainees. The food provided was previously described as “inedible” by other detention center visitors.
Another family detention center located in the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas has also been criticized for its “no release” policy, which denies many women the ability to pay a bond to secure their release. Other times, immigration judges set high bond prices that almost guarantees that immigrant women won’t be able to leave. One woman reportedly attempted suicide after a judge issued a high $5,000 bond. The “no release” policy stems from an April 2003 ruling in which former Attorney General John Ashcroft argued against granting bond to a Haitian immigrant because it would encourage future illegal entries, Buzzfeed reported.
Many have argued that these “no release” policies violates the Flores Settlement, which requires that migrant children be put in the least restrictive setting possible or to be placed with a family member or legal guardian. But those policies may soon be invalidated by a federal judge. According to lawyers who have had access to a not-yet released ruling, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee plans to rule that children and their mothers “cannot be held in unlicensed secure facilities such as those in the towns of Karnes City and Dilley, Texas,” and that children and accompanying parents can’t be held unless they are flight or security risks, McClatchy reported.