Washington — A coalition of House Democrats, legal advocates and one former detainee met Thursday to call for an end to the federal practice of "family detention," or holding immigrant women and children inside "jail-like" American detention centers.
Central American women and children fleeing violence and the absence of government protection in their homelands seek asylum in America, the advocates said, but are being treated like criminals -- and are suffering potentially long-term health effects as a result.
"I think it's important to note that when people show up at America's borders [seeking asylum], they're not breaking the law," said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, who also noted support for ending the practice from the religious community, including the nation's Catholic bishops.
The bishops' conference called for the dismantling of immigration detention May 11, saying the detention facilities "undermine families and harm children."
Pursuing asylum in America is a normal legal process, Lofgren said at a Capitol Hill press conference, "and here's how it goes: If they can make their case, under the law, they are permitted to stay; if they can't make their case, they have to leave."
"We're not trying to change the law," she said. "What we are saying is that it is immoral to keep mothers and children in jail while their cases are being made."
The practice of family detention grew after an influx of approximately 60,000 migrant families began to arrive at the Southwest border during the summer and fall of 2014. The government expanded its capacity to handle the families by building new facilities and retrofitting some old ones.
Today, two facilities exist in Texas, in Karnes City and Dilley, and another is located in Leesport, Pa. A facility in Artesia, N.M., was closed in November. The detention centers are operated by companies under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Maria Rosa Lopez, a recently released mother from Honduras, was detained with her 9-year-old son for six months in the Karnes City facility.
She said it was "very difficult" to talk about the experience.
Her son kept telling her, "Get me out of here, get me out of here," she said through an interpreter. At one point, he threatened to jump off the roof because he wanted "to be free," she said.
"Just like my son, a lot of other children have told their mothers, 'I want to kill myself because I've been in here for so long,' " Lopez said.
She said detainees weren't even given potable water. "We couldn't drink the water," she said. "We didn't want to drink the water; therefore, we had to buy water bottles, and they cost $1 or more, and we don't have money."
It is appalling that "those who arrive at our borders -- fleeing violence, fleeing a lack of any protection of their federal governments, rape, torture -- are incarcerated," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., co-chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Gutierrez and Lopez were also at the press conference Thursday in the Longworth House Office Building.
"That's wrong, that's not the American tradition," he said. "The idea, the very concept [that we would] lock up children -- children with their moms; children that are 5 months old and learning how to walk in jail -- would not be tolerated in any one of our cities."
Gutierrez thanked the government "for freshening up the water" in the detention facilities, for better cleaning the facilities, for promising additional doctors, for "opening the windows and letting in a little fresh air."
"But in the end, it's not about cosmetic changes," he said. "It is about the very issue of institutionalizing and jailing moms and children. The Department of Homeland Security should immediately release these mothers and these children into our civil society, into our greater society, where they can get lawyers," he said.
Calling it a "typical political stunt" by the Democrats, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, a Republican from the 10th district of Pennsylvania, disagreed with the lawmakers.
"The Democrats are trying to make it sound like it's a maximum-security prison with barbed wire and the whole nine yards, and it's not," Marino said. "The one I visited is dormitory style, and it gives the mother an opportunity, if she has a child while she's in prison, to stay with her child, nurse her child, nurture her child, and there's health care and meals and everything else there."
Marino, who was a prosecutor for 18 years, said he was skeptical about demands to end detention because once immigrants are released, they "overwhelmingly do not appear for their hearings, do not report for the process, and they're just gone." He also said he was open to improving the system and intended to write a letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security inquiring about the complaints against the facilities.
Others spoke about the ill health effects many are said to suffer while in detention.
"For a country that prides itself on valuing children and families, it truly is unconscionable that the United States of America would detain children and their mothers in conditions that experts tell us are having a serious and long-lasting impact on their psychological health and physical well-being," said Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.
"This is something that we have never seen before as lawyers," said Dree Collopy, a pro bono attorney who provided volunteer legal advice at the now-closed detention facility in Artesia, N.M. "As an asylum law expert," she said, "I can say without doubt that these women and children are refugees.
"They have come here seeking protection from the horrific violence they have suffered -- beatings, rape, human trafficking, torture -- all at the hands of actors who their governments fail and refuse to control."
Collopy said she witnessed "dehydrated, listless and malnourished children" inside the Artesia facility. The pleas of their mothers "for medical care were met with degrading and abusive treatment," she said.
A written declaration from Luis H. Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, was made available at the news conference.
Zayas, who visited the Karnes City facility, wrote: "Detention has had serious and long lasting impacts on the psychological health and well-being" of the families he interviewed. "In general, mothers showed high levels of anxiety -- especially separation anxiety for the children -- symptoms of depression, and feelings of despair."
"Children showed signs that the detention had caused developmental regression, such as reversion to breast feeding, and major psychiatric disorders, including suicidal ideation," he wrote. "Teenagers showed signs of depression and anxiety and, in some cases, major depressive disorders."
At the end of the news conference, Lofgren said, "We are joined in our effort to end jailing mothers and their little children not just by members of Congress, but by the Catholic bishops of the United States, by the religious community across the United States."
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the statements made by lawmakers supporting an end to detentions.
"I think that more and more members of Congress are realizing the injustice and inhumanity of detaining women with children, especially those who are fleeing violence in their home countries," he said. "It violates certain international standards and it's unnecessary, so we join with them to call for an end to family detention."
For Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., and chair of the Center for Migration Studies, detention is a humanitarian issue. "It is inhumane to detain these non-criminal aliens in this way," he said in an email response to NCR. The mothers and children being detained "deserve to be treated as human beings who escaped the oppression of violence and/or poverty. Almost all are productive members of our communities, contributing to our economy. I am not in favor of open borders. We must have control of our borders as a nation, but with a sensible immigration policy, that will continue to allow our economy to grow."
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio, which is about an hour away from both the family detention centers in Texas, thanked the elected officials "who today and in the past have voiced their understanding that Family Detention Centers cannot continue as part of the broken immigration system in the United States."
At a Mass Thursday at San Fernando Cathedral, García-Siller celebrated the feast of San Toribio Romo, patron of undocumented immigrants who seek refuge. In his homily, he said the church has "a special heart for those immigrant families who are in detention centers. We pray for them especially today on this feast of their patron. I ask God to help us soften and open our hearts, to see these families as families in need, not as dangers to our society or simply as faceless law-breakers. They are our sisters and brothers, and we should desire to fulfill the prayer of Jesus as fully as we can. They should be as close to us in our heart as Jesus is. That is what our Lord commands; that is what he prayed."
Lofgren said the practice of family detention is legally unnecessary.
"The Department of Homeland Security is violating its own policy," she said. "The law has only one interest: that the individuals, the moms and these children, show up for their court hearing."
"They don't need to be detained," she said. "They could be placed with a church." In some cases, an ankle bracelet could be used, she said. "These are cheaper, effective alternatives. We are asking the president to do that. It's in his power to do that."
[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is email@example.com. Nuri Vallbona, a regular contributor to Global Sisters Report, is a freelance documentary photojournalist and a lecturer at the University of Texas.]