Prison for Survivors

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This blog was cross-posted from Medium.

Earlier this year, a woman named Clara arrived at the United States border seeking protection from gender-based harm she faced in West Africa. She had endured an arduous journey trying to reach the U.S. border, where officials registered her claim for asylum. Rather than release her to pursue her case, however, officials sent Clara into the vast network of immigration detention facilities across the U.S. Since arriving in this country, she has been treated like a criminal, shackled and transferred multiple times between different detention facilities, awaiting a final decision on her request for protection that will determine her fate.

Alarmed at the increase in the detention of women seeking asylum, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) set out to tell the story of what was happening to women like Clara who came to the U.S. seeking protection under our asylum laws. When we began our research, in 2016, the Obama administration had been prioritizing the detention of border crossers — regardless of any humanitarian consideration. Asylum seekers who crossed the border ended up in detention, often with no hope for release unless they could pay increasingly high bonds, find an attorney to represent them, or both. The Trump administration has only made the situation worse for those seeking asylum, adding as enforcement targets countless other immigrants already living in the U.S. A whole disturbing new chapter is beginning in immigration detention, one that exacerbates the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of our current immigration system.

My colleagues and I spoke with approximately 150 women in detention, nearly all of whom were seeking asylum in the U.S. In the seven detention centers we visited, we heard about women who had clearly been traumatized by their experience of coming to the U.S. expecting protection but, instead, found themselves in jail, deprived of their rights and sometimes separated from their children. I heard story after story of vastly deficient conditions and inadequate medical treatment made even more difficult by a fundamental inability to navigate an immigration case because it is all but impossible to do so from detention without an attorney. Imagine being locked up after fleeing for your life and then not being able to communicate your needs because no interpreter is available. Women reported being shackled while in transit, for hours on end without a break. For example, imagine what it was like for Clara, who like other women reported being shackled while in transit when outside the facility, in her case when coming back from a painful medical procedure

Many of the women we spoke with felt — as anyone would — humiliated at having virtually no privacy when using the toilet in front of others in their dorms, being forced to wear used underwear that was often visibly stained, or having insufficient access to sanitary napkins. “I don’t have money to buy pads,” Iliana told us at the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, CA. “I would rather use that money to call my kids.”

The experiences these women shared with my colleagues and me took place against a backdrop of an immigration detention system that continues to be fueled by political motivations and profit-driven decisions and that has seen a dramatic rise in the proportion of women in ICE detention. In 2009, approximately nine percent of those in ICE detention were adult women. In April 2016 that proportion had grown to 14.6 percent (including in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s family detention centers). At the same time, the number of women and girls going through an initial asylum screening — likely from detention — nearly quadrupled between 2013 and 2016. The detention system as a whole grew from 34,000 detention beds in early 2016 to over 40,000 detention beds by the end of that year. Now, the Trump Administration is proposing to expand the system to more than 50,000 beds while simultaneously rolling back key detention standards.

As the 150 women who spoke to my colleagues and me make clear, the U.S. immigration detention system is in dire need of fundamental reform. A vital part of that reform needs to include an assurance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that immigration detention facility standards are universally strong and that facilities are actually held to account when those standards are not meaningfully implemented.

Yet, the system continues to fail. Just this week, several civil and human rights organizations, including WRC, filed an administrative complaint with DHS on behalf of women who are or were detained by ICE, women who received grossly inadequate medical care and treatment, exacerbating the trauma that many already experience in detention.

Unfortunately, eliminating the indignities of the current system will not fully address the despair that asylum-seeking women experience when facing the unbelievable cards stacked against them because of their detention. “It’s pointless,” said Clara. “It’s just punishment. The U.S. should just say it’s not accepting refugees.”

The Trump administration and Congress face a choice. Continue to feed more money into a broken immigration detention system that criminalizes and demoralizes vulnerable women immigrants and refugees, or direct ICE to make more humane and smarter choices about immigration enforcement that include release or community support for those seeking asylum in the U.S. Only one choice proves to Clara and so many others like her that, ultimately, the U.S. still does respect the right to seek asylum.