As the harsh conditions faced by children in overcrowded immigration detention centers dominate headlines, The Real News looks at the policy that created these conditions
OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: Over the last week, images showing hundreds of detainees have dominated the headlines across the country.
Right wing website Breitbart.com published images showing the dire conditions in which undocumented immigrants where being held before being transferred by bus to other facilities.
Law enforcement later acknowledged that about a thousand children where held in a warehouse in Nogales, AZ, which was being used as an [improvised] detention facility. The images of children sleeping on the floor, wrapped in shining emergency blankets, have circulated widely.
PETER BIDEGAIN III, SPOKESPERSON, U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION: The Border Patrol is making all the apprehensions. They had problems with bed space.
LEÓN: Peter Bidegain III, Customs and Border Protection’s spokesman, talked to us over the phone.
BIDEGAIN: We wait on–the office of refugee and resettlement, is the office that ultimately takes in unaccompanied minors that arrive at the U.S. So what’s happening is, as they lack bed space, we didn’t had the ability to transfer the unaccompanied minors out to them. So what’s happening is there’s a backlog in the processing of these individuals.
What we basically did is we started to transfer with DHS, Health and Human Services, and a couple of other agencies, we started to transfer unaccompanied minors from the Rio Grande Valley over to the Tucson sector to assist with processing.
LEÓN: Ray Ibarra is an experienced immigration attorney in Phoenix. He’s indignated about the response of authorities.
RAY IBARRA, IMMIGRATION ATTORNEY: Yeah, I mean, what’s happening right now on the U.S.-Mexico border is certainly a humanitarian crisis. Our immigration system should be set up to deal with situations like this, where people fleeing countries where their lives in danger. And we’d have better responses in putting people in small cramped rooms, lots of juveniles included, and really [inhumane] situations. To be busing them from one state to another state in the summer where it’s 110-plus degrees and not having food, water, or shelter available when those people get released is a complete injustice and not what the United States of America is supposed to be about.
LEÓN: So who are these kids and families detained in such conditions, overflowing Texas’s capacity to process? And why is there an overflow of detainees in the first place?
TONY BANEGAS, CONSUL OF HONDURAS FOR ARIZONA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): When I got there last Saturday I met with 936 children in there, 236 from Honduras and the rest from Guatemala and El Salvador.
LEÓN: We spoke with Tony Banegas, Consul of Honduras for Arizona, who, along with the consuls of Guatemala and Nicaragua, are the only ones allowed to visit the minors.
BANEGAS: They are sleeping in plastic containers, covering themselves with aluminum blankets and using portable toilets. They are now installing showers; on Sunday they installed two, and they offered 60 more over the course of the week. So the kids can clean themselves, because many of them haven’t showered or changed their clothes for weeks now. They are awaiting toothbrushes and toothpaste, because they haven’t brushed their teeth in days.
LEÓN: Banegas says that the children, who were eating frozen burritos, are growing in number, and that in general the conditions they where detained where not good.
Parallel to the children transferred to the warehouse in Nogales, the news of hundreds of families released under parole on Greyhound stations, took first stage as well.
NEWS PRESENTER, FOX 10: Immigration offices can’t handle these cases. They’re being shipped here to Phoenix.
LEÓN: Here we are outside the Greyhound station in Phoenix, Arizona, where hundreds of immigrants have been dropped off as a transit point.
After being detained for immigration violations and processed by law enforcement, these families were being released under parole, and they were on their way to meet their relatives all over the country. Lacking space to hold them, Border Patrol gave the order to appear before immigration courts in 15 days and dropped them off at Greyhound stations in Phoenix and Tucson.
Republican governor Jan Brewer, known for passing SB 1070 in Arizona, criminalizing undocumented people, declared: “I am disturbed and outraged that President Obama’s administration continues to implement this dangerous and inhumane policy”. She urged president Obama to, quote, put a stop to the “dangerous and unconscionable” practice of shipping illegal immigrants out of Texas and dumping them in Arizona.
CINDY WHITMORE, THE RESTORATION PROJECT: I think there are a lot of politicians that maybe are really unfamiliar with what’s happening in their own backyard.
Cindy Whitmore from the Restoration Project in Phoenix, a nonprofit organization in Phoenix devoted to help these families:
WHITMORE: Everybody seemed very shocked that people were being released from ICE custody at the Greyhound. And it happens all the time. It doesn’t happen in those numbers, and certainly not with that many children at a time, but this happens all over the country, everywhere there’s a detention center; they’re transferred to the nearest Greyhound, and from there they are on their own.
LEÓN: The attention by the media have highlighted the conditions in which thousands of people are detained for immigration crimes.
WHITMORE: As we got to talk to these families and we learned about the conditions that they were being held in, we realized that they were being held for days and days, some reported as long as eight days, in a holding area that was really only designed for a few hours.
LEÓN: On June 12, The Washington Post published a leaked video showing women and children sleeping on concrete floors in 90 degree heat at the McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol processing center. We can see that the sick are separated of the rest by mere yellow tape. The room is evidently overcrowded. And we also see crying babies and expectant mothers. The newspaper reported that these detainees wait for days in such conditions, this after the turn themselves in. The report quotes:
“Every day, hundreds of Central American migrants, in groups as large as 250 people, are wading across the muddy Rio Grande and turning themselves in to the Border Patrol as helicopters and speedboats with mounted machine guns patrol the river.”
Michelle Brané, director of Migrant Rights and Justice Program of the Women’s Refugee Commission, thinks many of the families and people crossing the border should qualify as refugees.
MICHELLE BRANÉ, DIRECTOR, MIGRANT RIGHTS AND JUSTICE PROGRAM, WOMEN’S REFUGEE COMMISSION: A lot of these children are violence refugees. They’re fleeing violence. They’re fleeing a situation on which their lives are at risk. They’re being persecuted I think, really. And the governments of the countries they live in are unable to protect them.
LEÓN: The main problem for Border Patrol and Customs Border Protection is that many of these immigrants are not for Mexico but from Central America and they cannot be simply dropped off on the Mexican side of the border.
Peter Bidegain III confirmed that there is an increase of migrants from Central America apprehended at the border.
BIDEGAIN: Well, the majority of the unaccompanied minors that we’re seeing are from Central America. So they’re from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
LEÓN: The Real News have reported about these issues for years now. Back in 2013 in one of our stories, Gene Valee, a founder of No More Deaths, had told us that now the majority of immigrants are from Central America, not Mexico.
GENE VALEE, FOUNDER NO MORE DEATHS: These are the things that have changed: there are certainly fewer Mexican people coming into the United States, and there are more people from Honduras, where there’s been a lot of violence in the last couple of years. And there’s still a continuing large number of people from Guatemala who are coming in for the same reason.
LEÓN: The University of Arizona found that “economic conditions in Central America, coupled with increasing violence there, is pushing more Central Americans to migrate north”.
VALEE: What’s been happening is that the percentage of people dying has gone up in the last two or three years.
SILKY SHAH, INTERIM EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF DETENTION WATCH: There are probably about 34,000 people detained at any given time in detention centers around the country, and the conditions are fairly bad.
LEÓN: Silky Shah from Detention Watch Network argues that the immigrants’ detainees rights are routinely violated by law enforcement.
SHAH: So ever the course of fiscal year 2012 we saw 478,000 people be detained over the course of the year. That’s an all time high. It’s been higher than ever before under the Obama administration. And we currently actually have a quota system that requires at minimum 34,000 people being detained. And this quota system is in place in appropriations, so it’s a part of how Congress funds Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
LEÓN: Beyond the fact that by law there have to be 34,000 people detained, Shah also argues that the U.S. is prioritizing law enforcement while not providing the detainees with adequate care.
SHAH: The majority of facilities that are used are outsourced. ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement, has no real mechanisms for oversight. So some of the conditions that we’ve heard about are people, you know, not getting the medical or mental health care that they need. A lot of times people are inside detention for 23 hours a day, don’t even get to go outside. Sometimes it’s just a window in a room that makes it seem like they’re, you know, getting some outside air, but they’re not actually getting to go outside. There’s a lot of use of solitary confinement. A lot of complaints about the food, really terrible food, people not getting enough food a lot of times, and so they have to spend money at the commissary, which is very expensive.
A lot of the times what happens with detention is that the priority is to make money in some way, whether it’s for profit or for your county, as opposed to care.
LEÓN: The American Civil Liberties Union (the ACLU) and the National Prison Project released a study called Warehoused and Forgotten. The report quotes:
“Nationwide, more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions initiated in fiscal year 2013 were for unlawfully crossing the border into the United States–an act that has traditionally been treated as a civil offense resulting in deportation, rather than as a criminal act resulting in incarceration in a federal prison. This is dramatically changing who enters the federal prison system.”
The tipping point came in 2009, when more people entered federal prison for immigration offenses than for violent, weapons, and property offenses combined–and the number has continued to rise each year since.
Precisely the ACLU and a coalition that includes the National Immigrant Justice Center filed a lawsuit against CBP (Customs and Border Protection) for widespread abuse of children. The coalition represents over 100 unaccompanied children mistreated by Border Patrol Agents after being apprehended at the border.
Michelle Brané says that there is no unified database to locate people detained at the border.
BRANÉ: One thing that we’ve been trying to get Border Patrol to do or DHS to do at the border for many years now it to create a sort of locator system. In this case, they would only have to make a contact to say, yes, your child is here and they are okay, or they’re going to be transferred to this location.
LEÓN: According to Peter Bidegain III, Customs and Border Protection’s spokesman, the best chance to find a relative or a child missing while crossing the border is precisely to contact the consulate office of their countries of origin.
BIDEGAIN: Yeah, so if the family’s already here in the United States and they have a relative that they think is in, you know, Border Patrol custody or Office of Refugee Resettlement or any other government agencies, what the family needs to do is reach out to the consulate of their country.
LEÓN: Tony Banegas, Consul of Honduras for Arizona, say the number of children detained in the warehouse keeps growing.
BANEGAS: They are more than 1,000 by now. A lot of people have been calling me to try to find out about a missing relative or children. They are calling from all around the U.S. and even Honduras, knowing the children are on U.S. soil. The relatives are anxious, but I can’t tell them when the children are going out of detention; it all depends to U.S. authorities. I have names and information about all of the children I interviewed. I have information about their parents and places of origin, even their phone numbers.
But at the time, I am too busy. I don’t have time [to call them] or process any of that. I am doing what I can. I have so many phone calls that I can’t answer to all of them. And at the time, it’s only me here [in the consulate]. Right now I was running out the door towards Nogales.
LEÓN: Silky Shah argues that the images of crowded jails are no more than the tip of the iceberg, showing the face of thousands of human beings whom trying to escape economic devastation ended up trapped in private jails for profit.
SHAH: The problem is less that, you know, there’s overcrowding; the problem is that there’s over-incarceration and over-detention. There’s a mass detention system that doesn’t need to exist. The only reason anybody is in detention is because they’re showing up to–they need to show up to a hearing to determine their status.
LEÓN: According to the department of Health and Human Services, on fiscal year 2013, Border Patrol apprehended 24,668 unaccompanied minors. The numbers for 2014 are expected to rise at around 60,000.
On June 2, President Obama declared the U.S.-Mexico border under an “urgent humanitarian situation”, acknowledging the grave conditions of the minors. This declaration is expected to release $1.4 billion for border agencies under the control of Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). According to federal officials, this declaration will provide the shelters with medical treatment, food, and mental health services.
With poverty rates and gang-related violence growing in Central America, it is reasonable to wonder how much more money and manpower will be needed to control this new wave of central American refugees, which adds to the already thousands of people trying to cross the border that separates the First World and the Third World.
Reporting for The Real News, this is Oscar León.