Ever the Protectors, Moms Seeking Asylum Need Protection, Too


(AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)

In this September 10, 2014, file photo, an unidentified immigrant from Guatemala who declined to give her name, is interviewed, while her son paints on a whiteboard at the Artesia Family Residential Center, a federal detention facility for undocumented immigrant mothers and children in Artesia, New Mexico.

This essay is published by The American Prospect in partnership with The OpEd Project's Public Voices Fellowship. It is part of a package of commentary pieces centered on Mother's Day 2015.

In last year’s Mother’s Day Proclamation, President Obama recommended we put our moms first “because they so often put everything above themselves.” He said we should “extend our gratitude for our mothers' unconditional love and support” because “when women succeed, America succeeds.” 

Obama should have specified that his enthusiasm for moms is strictly limited to American moms. 

Last summer, his administration systematically locked up over a thousand mothers and children, fleeing for their lives from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. 

The United States is in the midst of the largest buildup of family detention facilities since the Japanese internment camps during World War II. There are projected to be more than 3,500 beds specifically reserved for immigrant mothers and children available this summer. This is nearly a 40-fold increase from the number of family detention beds that existed just over a year ago, when Obama spoke of “putting moms first.”

Locking these mothers up is an affront to our commitment to women’s rights and to a fair legal system. Many of these mothers have fled gang violence as well as severe gender-based violence at the hands of intimate partners.

They may qualify for asylum if they can show their home countries have failed to protect them from life-threatening violence. But instead of providing them with a fair process that would allow them to tell their stories and have their asylum claims adjudicated, the current policy demands that they be locked up. 

The government asserts that detention is justified by the need to deter others from coming, and to ensure that these mothers show up for their hearings. What the government doesn’t highlight is the astonishing cost of this approach: A recent U.S. Senate report estimates family detention costs taxpayers $266 per person, per day.  The cost of just one of the new family detention centers in Dilley, Texas, comes to $261 million annually. 

The logic of this rationale is also suspect: A federal judge recently rejected the administration’s blanket deterrence justification, requiring each detainee to receive some individualized consideration of release. 

It's not as if every other country locks up asylum-seekers. Sweden and Australia have adopted case management systems to ensure asylum-seekers to do not abscond, in which a single case manager is responsible for helping each migrant with his or her housing needs and legal advice.

In Great Britain, asylum-seekers receive furnished accommodation, living expenses ($57 per week) and free health-care access. 

These more humane approaches in other countries recognize what shouldn’t need to be said: It is perfectly legal to seek asylum in another country. In fact, it is a basic human right, well-established under international and domestic law.

However, in the United States, seeking asylum is increasingly treated like a criminal act, especially if you are a woman from Central America. These moms’ unconditional love and support for their children—which made them undertake the harrowing journey north—is greeted not with gratitude but punishment.

Consider a plaintiff in the case challenging the Obama administration’s family detention policy. Known as W.M.C., she fled El Salvador because her former partner, a gang member, physically abused her brutally and unrelentingly, and threatened her children as well. Despite this traumatic experience, W.M.C and her young children were held for more than ten weeks in a detention center, even though she had a U.S. relative willing to provide her with support and assistance to pursue her asylum claim from outside detention. 

There are currently more than a thousand moms like W.M.C. locked up in family detention facilities, facing an unknown amount of time in prison if they want to see their asylum claim through, as they watch their children grow thinner and more depressed. 

This brings us to this year’s Mother’s Day: Instead of Hallmark generalities about “putting moms first,” perhaps we should pause and consider the mothers in immigration detention facilities. For them, a real Mother’s Day present would be a system that treats them the same way we would want our own moms to be treated if they sought refuge from violence threatening their own and their kids’ lives.


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