…and I’ll throw them into a detention camp.
Last weekend I was able to participate in a discussion with Brian Hoffman, an immigration lawyer from the Columbus area who has been working with recent immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Most of Brian’s clients are women and children who, through great hardship and at great expense, arrived at the U.S. border and willingly surrendered themselves to the authorities.
Most of these refugees are fleeing unspeakable violence, both domestic and gang-related. The two are closely intertwined. The governments of these countries are either overwhelmed by powerful drug lords and their gangs – or complicit in their crimes. Women whose lives are threatened by domestic violence can expect no protection from local police or from the criminal justice system. Children whose fathers have been killed in the drug wars are ruthlessly recruited, under threat of violence or death, to join the gangs themselves.
So they come to the U.S. And what happens?
Thousands of them are being held in remote “family detention centers” like the one in Artesia, New Mexico. Refugees have a Constitutional right to seek asylum in the U.S. But that’s a long and complicated process, requiring extensive legal assistance from bilingual lawyers like Brian.
Since virtually all the clients Brian works with have family members in the U.S. to vouch for them – and since they have already demonstrated their desire to abide by the law and follow the legal immigration process – they should be able to post bond and await their hearings in local communities. But we don’t have nearly enough lawyers like Brian, who are able and willing to work with non-English-speaking clients. We don’t have nearly enough immigration judges to keep up with the huge backlog of cases. And sadly, some judges impose excessive amounts of $30,000 or more, or simply deny bail altogether. So the women and children wind up in places like Artesia, to be “warehoused” under maximum security until they can schedule their day in court.
According to Brian Hoffman and many other lawyers and observers, the conditions in the “family detention centers” are shameful and humiliating. Accommodations are Spartan at best, the food is bad, and security measures are oppressive. Refugees are under the surveillance of armed guards at all times, on the assumption that they may constitute a threat to homeland security. We’re talking desperate women and underage children here – including nursing infants. No child care is available, and mothers must be with their children at all times – even when they are being interviewed by lawyers about the horrors they have seen and experienced in their home countries. Mothers find themselves forced to recount in detail, in the presence of their young children, their own brutal rape or the grisly death of the children’s father.
If you believe in the promise symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, if you believe in the principles of the U.S. Constitution, if you believe in the rule of law and in simple compassion, you’ve got to be appalled at what is being done to these women and children in our name.
We need to recognize the reality of these refugees’ situation, and act accordingly. That means providing necessary legal assistance to those seeking asylum, setting fair bails, and assigning enough immigration judges to keep up with the caseload. It means respecting the dignity and humanity of those who have suffered to reach what they believed was a land of freedom and opportunity. It means providing decent living conditions to those awaiting asylum, and seeing that the physical, psychological, and educational needs of young children are not neglected.
Have you ever heard U.S. Representatives Jim Renacci or Bob Gibbs speak in support of any of those measures? I haven’t. Take a look at their web sites and campaign literature. Both of them seem to have the same knee-jerk responses to any question about the immigration issue: “Tighten security at the border!” And “Say no to amnesty!”
Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, ends with this:
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Our current treatment of refugee families from Central America is a hideous parody of those words. If you see the irony, and share my outrage, let your elected officials know it. Take a good look at the immigration policies advocated by those running for office. And this November, vote your conscience.