There are 11.3 million people in the U.S. who have immigrated illegally. And as you have probably heard, the presidential candidates have different opinions about how to handle them. Most notably, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump wants to deport them.
The immigration debate intensified a couple of years ago when a flood of women and children came across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The federal government didn’t know how to handle the influx, so they detained these women and children in three family centers: two in Texas; one in Pennsylvania. Today there are more than a thousand people in these centers, waiting to know if they’ll be allowed to stay in the country.
This week on For the Record: detaining families at the border.
Maria Rosa Lopez and her son were some of thousands of people who fled from Central America to the U.S. in 2014 to escape gang violence, drug wars, civil war, or in Maria’s case, domestic abuse — which is considered a credible fear that can warrant an asylum claim.
That fall, Lopez, living in Honduras, had nowhere to turn. She spoke to NPR through a translator.
“It’s not easy to explain because there was a lot of violence of at home,” Lopez says. “And then outside my home, I really didn’t have anybody and so I couldn’t get help.”
Her husband was abusive and she feared for her life and the lives of her three kids.
“I called the police a couple of times, but they didn’t show up. And that was when I really needed them. The cops are not to trust. But when you’re pushed to the wall, and you don’t have anybody to call, the police is the only place you can go to. But they didn’t help me,” she says.
Honduras has one of the highest crime rates in Central America. Violence was all around her and it finally got so bad she decided she would take her youngest child and flee.
“My son was asking me to leave. He wanted to get out of Honduras. He went through a lot of violence himself,” Lopez says.
When she arrived in Guatemala, she knocked on someone’s door, hoping a find a place to clean up. “This family helped me,” Lopez says. “And then, I was able to catch a bus to the capital, to Guatemala City.”
From Guatemala City, she and her son crossed another border into Mexico and then took a bus north to Monterrey, close to the northern Mexico-U.S. border.
“I paid someone to take us across on a boat. It was night time and we slept in the desert on the U.S. side. There were other moms and their kids there too. A Brazilian woman asked me if she could sleep next to us,” Lopez says.
The next morning, immigration officers woke them and took them to the Karnes detention center outside of San Antonio, Texas.
Lopez wanted asylum so she and her son could start their lives over in the U.S. She didn’t know what to expect when she got on American soil, but she didn’t expect to be housed in this facility with no word on when she’d be released.
“I was desperate when we got there. It was hard to see my child crying and he was asking a lot of questions,” she recalls. “He knew it was a detention center and he wanted to know how long we were going to be there.”
But she didn’t know either. “No one was answering questions. I talked with people who had been there for six, eight months, and it was very depressing.” she says. “Often my son couldn’t fall asleep, we had bunk beds. He was on top of me but he would crawl down and wanted to be with me.”
Denise Gilman, one of Maria’s former lawyers, says the Karnes detention facility “feels very much like a prison” with “cinderblock walls, clanging doors, X-ray machines all over the place, buzzers that you have to use to get in and out to go see your 9-year-old client and his mom.”
Gilman, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas Law School, says these women and children are seeking asylum, but they’re treated like criminals. Oftentimes, they have family members who’ve already made it to the U.S., and she says these new immigrants should be able to stay with their families while their cases proceed.
“The families have every incentive to appear for their hearings,” she says. “They need this protection, the ability to remain in the United States with stability, with the ability to work and integrate into the community so that they can be safe, recover from the trauma they’ve experienced and avoid facing possible harm or death in their home countries.”
“We Want People To Come Here The Right Way”
Phil Miller is with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), part of the Department of Homeland Security. As you might imagine, he has a different view of the detention facilities.
“Some NGOs are promulgating these gulag-like scenarios where women are locked in rooms and they can’t see their children,” Miller says. “And what you actually see is that there’s a school there for the children. There are gyms, there are open cafeterias. I mean, eating in the cafeteria there is no different than where my kids go to eat. We take our custodial and care responsibility very seriously.”
He says the facilities were the best way to respond to the crisis at the time. Advocacy groups filed legal challenges against the government for holding women and children for months. The government made changes after that, and now immigrants are expedited through family detention in a matter of weeks.
Detention was supposed to deter immigrants, but there are other forces at work. Miller points to criminal syndicates throughout Central America that prey on vulnerable people looking to flee desperate situations. They perpetuate the myth that all it takes is putting your feet on U.S. soil to get some kind of permisos or permit to stay.
“A lot of folks were convinced that if they made it to a border patrol station they would be receiving these permisos,” Miller says. “So really we had to do something that, historically, ICE had done in very small numbers, which was devise a strategy where we could process, vet and detain these folks that were coming to the border in these numbers. Which is why we took this historic step of expanding our family detention capacity.”
In 2014, at the height of the crisis, more than 136,000 unaccompanied minors and families were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley.
Texas Republican Congressman Roger Williams has seen how border agents try to vet all the immigrants right after they’ve crossed into the U.S.
“It literally tears your heart out,” he says.
He describes signs that separate the genders and age groups, the mothers and fathers. “And then you go to another area and there might be a dozen of the worst and meanest people in the world that they’ve also captured down on the border,” Williams says.
That’s the group he’s most concerned about.
“There’s a lot of issues down there, and being from Texas, and being engaged like I am, you realize that it’s very, very serious,” he says. “But at the end of the day, we’re a land of laws and we’ve got to maintain American sovereignty, and we want people to come here the right way … They are coming over for a better life for their family — I get it. But still, we’ve got to do it the right way.”
That right way includes creating more deterrents, which is why Congressman Williams supports building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
After six months in the Karnes detention facility, Maria Lopez’s 9-year-old son was granted asylum and she was released with him. Her brothers live in Baltimore, and they flew both her and her son there to live with them. Today, Lopez’s son is in second grade, and she works part time cleaning at a restaurant. It’s not enough to live on but it’s a start.
Lopez can’t say that crossing the border was worth it.
“I didn’t dream about this, but this is the way things have turned out,” she says. “I’m just very thankful to God because I’m alive, I’m well and I’m fighting for my children.”
Lopez’s two teenage daughters are still in Honduras. Now that her case has been settled, she’s going to focus her energy on bringing her other kids here too.
We should also note that this past week, the director of ICE, Sarah Saldaña said that the federal government is considering ending the detention of women and children at the Karnes facility in Texas.