Austin, Texas — Three Syrian families may spend Christmas in Texas detention centers after immigration officials denied their parole request last week. The decision angered immigration advocates who called on the Obama administration to release the refugee families saying it violates a federal court ruling.
The families presented themselves last month at the border in Laredo, Texas. Although they passed their background checks and credible fear interviews – an interview for asylum seekers that determines whether they fear persecution or torture upon their return to their home country — the families were denied parole by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, said Jonathan Ryan, director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). (Ryan, an attorney, is representing the families.)
Advocates said this violates the Flores ruling, in which a federal judge said the U.S. government cannot detain asylum-seeking mothers and children for more than 20 days. Ryan hopes the government will reconsider and release the families so they can be reunited by Christmas.
"We are calling on the president to stand by his words, that we must protect these refugees and end* this misguided policy of family detention and let these families be free," Ryan said. "Children should not have to pass the credible fear interview in order to be released."
Statements from the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that two groups of Syrians presented themselves at the Laredo point of entry on different dates. "Records checks revealed no derogatory information about the individuals and [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] turned them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further processing and placement in an ICE facility," said one of the statements regarding the third family. It also referred to the two single males who accompanied that family.
A statement from ICE said it "makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis" and that the agency "is currently evaluating these cases."
One of the denial of parole documents showed two boxes marked with an x as reasons for the denial. "You have not established to ICE's satisfaction that you are not a danger to the community or U.S. security," read one box. The second box cited "law enforcement interests or national policy consequences." All three families received identical documents, said a RAICES spokesperson.
When the families learned of the decision, Ryan said they were confused.
"They are completely, I think perplexed … that we are associating them with the very people from whom they're fleeing," Ryan said. "To be sitting face-to-face with a human being, a frail woman in a jail holding her baby, and to try to connect the dots to her -- as to how we are associating them with violent extremism -- was not just difficult for her to hear, but difficult for me to say."
He likened it to telling an American of Japanese descent about the internment camps of World War II.
"Keeping these families in indefinite detention simply based on their national origin is exactly what was found to be unconstitutional more than a year ago by the federal courts about family detention," Ryan said, referencing the Flores case.
The decision, issued by Judge Dolly Gee in California, was in response to a motion to enforce the 20-year-old Flores Settlement Agreement that said minors cannot be held in secure, unlicensed facilities. Gee's ruling said that families could not be detained more than 20 days but that a parent could be kept longer if there was a flight risk or security risk to the country.
"In these cases they're absolutely in violation of Flores because there must be an individualized determination that is supported with some basis for keeping a child in a prison for this long," Ryan said.
Details about the families were not shared with the media out of concern family members back home might be endangered, Ryan said. However he did say that the women who each had "very young" children were being held at the detention center in Dilley, Texas, while the husbands were at a center in Pearsall, Texas. The families are from an unspecified Christian Orthodox denomination but one of the women is Roman Catholic.
"We were speaking through interpreters because the Catholic woman in particular had no English and I speak no Arabic," Ryan said, "so when she said Catholic … I looked at her and said 'Catholic? Pope Francis?' And she lit up and her eyes glowed and she said, 'Papa! Francis!'"
Recent terror attacks linked to ISIS in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have created a backlash against refugees fleeing violence in Syria. Recently, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit to block Syrian refugees from entering the state, although the lawsuit was withdrawn two days later. Immigration advocates said they are unsure whether the terror attacks had anything to do with the government's decision to keep the families in detention.
"I do hear in the community of people who are scared," said Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. "I think they are uniting refugees with what has happened in Paris."
The Missionaries of Jesus sister runs a respite center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, that offers help to immigrants released from detention centers at the border.
"I think our bishops in Texas have talked about how important it is to be able to do things, to protect our land and our safety but at the same time to respond to refugees who need our help," Pimentel said. "I think both are possible if we each do our job."
But, the sister added, people "have a responsibility to one another, especially to the vulnerable and the refugee and the immigrant who is here running from violence and it is our responsibility to open our hearts and welcome them."
A group of 54 sisters in Illinois sent a letter to Republican Senator Mark Kirk on Tuesday asking for compassion toward Syrian refugees.
"Fear cannot and must not be an excuse for inaction, or worse, a rejection, of our faithful duty to respond to the urgent needs of our Syrian brothers and sisters," the sisters said.
"We respectfully ask for your support to ensure that the U.S. continues to be a world leader in efforts to act on behalf of refugees and to provide a beacon of hope to persons of all faiths who yearn to breathe free."
*This story has been updated to correct a quote.
[Nuri Vallbona is a freelance documentary photojournalist. She worked for the Miami Herald from 1993 to 2008 and has been a lecturer at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University.]