Prison is neither a childcare nor a residential center

Dunia Romero and daughter Stefany.

The United States has built three special hells for immigrant women and children: the Berks Family Residential Center, in Leesport, Pennsylvania; the South Texas Family Residential Center, in Dilley, Texas; and the Karnes County Residential Center, in Karnes City, Texas. U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement is very proud of Karnes. When first opened, ICE boasted, “The Karnes County Residential Center (KCRC) is the first facility housing ICE detainees built from the ground up with ICE’s civil detention standards in mind. It represents a significant milestone in the agency’s long-term effort to reform the immigration detention system.” Last Friday, April 29, despite numerous `deficiencies’, Karnes was issued a temporary residential childcare license. Rather than a significant milestone in any attempt to reform anything, this is just another scene in the theater of cruelty that is immigration policy. Prison is neither a childcare nor a residential facility. Ask Dunia Romero and her fifteen-year-old daughter Stefany; ask Josie and her ten-year old son Manuel; ask Susana Arévalo Hernández and her two children; ask the mothers of Berks, Dilley, Karnes, and to a person they will tell you the same thing: “This is a prison. We fled violence and you have treated us as criminals. Why?” End the torture of women and children, and while you’re at it, stop the abuse of language and common sense. Prison is not childcare.

Yesterday, Dunia Romero and her daughter joined dozens of other undocumented mothers and children in a demonstration outside the White House. They are part of the Esperanza que Florece – Blooming Hope campaign, urging people to send Mother’s Day postcards to four prominent and influential mothers: Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, Celia Muñoz, Valerie Jarrett. The postcards call for an end to “family detention.”

Yesterday, as well, a judge in Austin granted a temporary restraining order to stop the Dilley prison from being licensed until a full court hearing on May 13. While it’s only a temporary stay, it’s an important step, and it was initiated by a lawsuit filed by two women prisoners of Dilley and Grassroots Leadership. The Karnes prison retains its license.

Today, the Center for American Progress released A Short-Term Plan to Address the Central American Refugee Situation, which noted, “The administration should close the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, and release those detained mothers and children who do not pose a security or flight risk that cannot otherwise be mitigated … The administration should create short-term processing centers for families upon arrival that function like shelters rather than prisons. These centers would give families the ability to get their bearings in the United States; attend legal orientations and connect with pro bono counsel; and receive medical, mental health, and other needed care.”

This Mother’s Day, various groups – including currently and formerly imprisoned women and children refugees, legal teams, advocacy groups, and just plain folks – again attempt to move the State to turn its prisons into shelters and its swords into welcoming arms. Please consider joining others by sending a postcard, the link is here. Honor Mothers’ Day this year by joining the fight to release imprisoned immigrant mothers and children and by ending family detention now.

 

(Photo credit: Armando Trull / WAMU) (Image Credit: We Belong Together)

Honor Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf by shutting down the detention centers

Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf

In England, today, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) joined a local ngo, Migrants Organise, to award Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf the Woman of the Year Award. Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf fled Somalia years ago, landing up in Kenya, and then moved on to the United Kingdom. She knew no English, had no friends or acquaintances there, and knew nothing about asylum processes. She just knew she deserved to live with dignity and respect. Yusuf left her family, in particular her children, behind, and has not been able to contact them. Par for the course, Yusuf was dumped in Yarl’s Wood, days after arriving, and then denied asylum. She’s been appealing that decision for eight years. During the asylum process, the applicant cannot work, and so Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf is meant to beg. But instead she sings and speaks out and organizes. She is the woman of the year, and it is a year, another year, of shame and hope.

Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf moved to Manchester, found a place to live with other women asylum seekers, and joined WAST, Women Asylum Seekers Together. Together, Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf and her sisters have called, sung, stamped, chanted and organized to shut down Yarl’s Wood, and to shut down all detention centers. From Australia to the United Kingdom to the United States, abolition is in the air, and its current stations are immigrant detention centers. A global forest of hashtags is sprouting, from #ShutDownBerks to #ShutDownYarlsWood and #SetHerFree to #LetThemStay, individuals are forming local groups that are becoming national organizations that are becoming international, from Juntos to Women for Refugee Women and Movement for Justice to the International Alliance Against Mandatory Detention, made up of Australian activists living around the world. Another world is possible.

As nation-States built more and more special hells for women asylum seekers and for immigrant and migrant women, generally, the women organized and said, NO! We are not animals, we are humans. We are not trash, we are women. They also spoke for their children, who were daily being crushed by the prison experience. Their children cry out, “I am not a criminal. I don’t want to be locked up here anymore.”

The abuse of children in detention centers in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States is torture, and it’s a crime against humanity, which is being called out and judged now. When a judge says that 3- and 4-year-old children can represent themselves in court, he has done more than condemn the process. He has shown what happens to the rule of law when it discounts the humanity of those who enter not only the court, but also the land itself. His tortured logic emerges as part of a systematic application of torture as a form of reasoned jurisprudence.

That system of torture is global, and it focuses on women and children.

Berks is inhumane and abusive, and even the lawmakers say so. Yarl’s Wood is a house of shame. Nauru, Villawood and all the Australian solutions to the crisis of human beings seeking help are one giant pit of disgrace. In each case, the arc of atrocity is expanding, infecting structures from education to health care but also the ways in which we view one another and ourselves. The debt that the abuse of asylum seekers creates is trauma for the asylum seekers and daily and increasing loss of our humanity.

Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf is the woman of the year, because another world is possible. Tomorrow, led by Movement for Justice, thousands will gather around Yarl’s Wood and raise a ruckus. Thousands are organizing across the United States to shut down Berks, Dilley and Karnes as well. Across Australia, people are organizing not only to shut down the detention centers and the entire juridical apparatus that feeds the monster. They are wondering if this is “the moment” in which we will join in solidarity, across oceans and borders. Maybe it is. One thing is certain. We’ve passed enough-is-enough. The time is now. #ShutDownYarlsWood #SetHerFree #LetThemStay #ShutDownBerks #Not1More #NeverAgain Do it for Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf, and for all the women and children. Until the prisons are closed, we are all imprisoned.

 

(Photo Credit: WorldPost / Rifat Ahmed) (Video Credit: Women for Refugee Women / YouTube)

Lilian Oliva Bardales: “In prison when I haven’t committed any crime”

Lilian Yamileth Oliva Bardales, 19 years old, and her four-year-old son have been held in KarnesFamily Detention Center” since last October. She had applied for asylum, explaining that she had fled Honduras to escape an abusive ex-partner, six years older than she, who had beaten her regularly since she was 13. Her application was denied. Last Wednesday, she locked herself in a bathroom and cut her wrists. She was removed from the bathroom, held for four days under medical “supervision” during which she was denied access to her attorneys, and then, on Monday, suddenly moved from Karnes, presumably for deportation. From beginning to now, the treatment of Lilian Oliva Bardales has been a national disgrace.

Oliva Bardales left a note, the translation of which reads, in part: “I write this letter so you know how it feels to be in this damn place for 8 months. You don’t understand that people’s lives have no price and you cannot buy it with money. You don’t have a heart for anybody. You just lie and humiliate all of us who have come to this country … I do this because only God knows what I have suffered in my country. I come here so this country can help me but here you’ve been killing me little by little with punishment and lies in prison when I haven’t committed any crime. What hurts me the most is that I saw how my brother was killed and how it’s hurt my son and all the abuse that we suffered in my country. You don’t believe me you never wanted to give me my freedom. I do this because I would rather be dead than seeing my son fail along with me. Maybe you are not fathers or mothers to understand the reasons and the suffering that we live in this place together with our children. You would not like to be locked up in a place like this the way we are here suffering with our children. What I tell you is that nobody lives forever in this world one day we are all going to die and give an account to God. I do this because I don’t feel any life going back to my country. That’s why I waited so long so you could take a decision on my case but you have treated us worse than an animal …That’s why I do this because you were bad to me and my son. We did not deserve this. now you want to deport me after spending 8 months here.”

That’s “family detention”. It is the place where mercy dies a slow, tortured, mean, evil death:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

When mercy seasons justice. When degradation, abuse, torture and despair season the appeal for asylum … what then? Where are Lilian Oliva Bardales and her four-year-old son?

 

(Image Credit: McClatchydc.com)

Nan-Hui Jo, guilty of dignity and survival

 

#StandWithNanHui

Nan-Hui Jo is a single mother, Korean immigrant to the United States, survivor of domestic violence, and prisoner. She stands, and struggles, at the intersection of State violence against immigrant women, women of color, and domestic violence survivors. While her story of being subjected to at least three forms of State violence is in many ways tragic, Nan-Hui Jo does not embody a failure of the State. The State wants Nan-Hui Jo suffering in prison and that’s what’s happening.

Nan-Hui Jo’s story is complicated, because of the innumerable details and turns, and yet simple, because of its familiarity. As a survivor of domestic violence, her story joins with those of Marissa Alexander, Tondalo Hall, and so many other women of color survivors who have been sent to prison for the crime of survival. As an immigrant woman, she joins Kenia Galeano and the mothers in Karnes Immigration Detention Center, in Texas, who are struggling to end State violence against immigrant women. In both categories, the women’s crime is having asserted their dignity.

Very briefly, Nan-Hui Jo came to the United States as a student, met a guy, fell in love, returned to Korea to get a fiancé visa, returned, married. Her husband abused her, and so Nan-Hui Jo filed for separation, moved across the country to California, returned to school, met a guy. Soon after, Nan-Hui Jo became pregnant, the guy pushed for an abortion, she resisted, they broke up, they re-united, they broke up again. Two months later, Nan-Hui Jo gave birth to Vitz Da, a beautiful baby girl. The father re-entered the picture a few months after Vitz Da’s birth, seemed to love the child, and the two adults re-united. The father exhibited unpredictably violent behavior, striking at Nan-Hui Jo at least once and threatening constantly. In July 2009, the two separated.

Here’s where it gets `complicated.’ Because Nan-Hui Jo had separated from her husband, she lost his sponsorship, and so ICE denied her application for a green card. Because no one told Nan-Hui Jo that she had rights as an immigrant survivor of domestic violence, she agreed to return to South Korea, which she did with her daughter. Five years later, in July 2014, Nan-Hui Jo and Vitz Da returned to the United States. Jo was arrested for child abduction. Her daughter was taken away. Despite his violent history, the father was given full custody of the child. Mother and daughter have not seen each other since.

Nan-Hui Jo’s trial ended in a hung jury. She stayed in jail, awaiting a second trial, where she was found guilty. In April, Nan-Hui Jo was sentenced to 175 days time served and three years probation. Immediately, Nan-Hui Jo was turned over to immigration authorities, who decided to place her in prison. She could have remained in the community until her hearing. Instead, she sits in jail.

Many organizations, such as the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse, have campaigned for not only Nan-Hui Jo’s release but for her exoneration and freedom. 170 Asian American organizations sent an open letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security. They note, “Ms. Jo’s case highlights the vulnerable and marginalized situations that undocumented people and survivors of domestic violence face … As a coalition of organizations dedicated to protecting and advancing immigrants’ rights and providing support to survivors of domestic violence, we especially are concerned about Ms. Jo’s case, given her status as an immigrant, domestic violence survivor, and mother. We ask that the Department of Homeland Security drop the immigration hold request against Ms. Jo and release her from detention.”

Silence.

Who benefits from separating this woman from her daughter? Who benefits from her sitting in jail? In a related context, Silvia Federici provides a clue, “The struggle of immigrant domestic workers fighting for the institutional recognition of `carework’ is strategically very important, for the devaluation of reproductive work has been one of the pillars of capital accumulation and the capitalistic exploitation of women’s labor.”

When Nan-Hui Jo arrived in the United States, survival became her carework, and the State has extracted value from that since day one. The State passes laws that `protect’ women, and then the same State refuses to implement those laws when women need them to survive and to live. That is no failure; that is the program. This is the lesson those organizing the Stand With Nan-Hui Campaign are learning and teaching others. State violence against domestic violence survivors is wrapped in State violence against immigrant women is wrapped again in State violence against women. And the result? Women – survivors, immigrants, women of color, prisoners – have to work ten times as hard to survive and assert their dignity.

For the rest of her life, Nan-Hui Jo will have to struggle and labor furiously to have any contact with her daughter. This is the price women, and their daughters, pay for the crime of asserting the dignity of women.

 

(Image Credit: Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse)

The Parable of Karnes Immigration Detention Center

 

In the spirit of Holy Week, the mothers of Karnes Immigration Detention Center, in south Texas, are on work and hunger strike. With their bodies, they are asserting their humanity, sisterhood, dignity, and, as so often, with their bodies they are protecting their children. This is the highway to hell we have constructed over the last few decades. Women and children fleeing violence, pleading for help and haven, are criminalized, vilified, and thrown into prisons. The site-specific irony, and tragedy, is that when Karnes was opened in 2012 the Obama administration hailed it as a model for more humane and less penal treatment of immigrants. All hail the new model.

Karnes is so great that when Victoria Rossi, a paralegal, recently described the conditions therein, she was rewarded by being barred from the establishment. The conditions at Karnes are neither new nor unknown. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and others wrote letters, filed complaints, and sued the Federal government because of the conditions at Karnes. MALDEF documented numerous cases of sexual abuse, extortion and harassment of women. The ACLU cited numerous women, who fled domestic violence at home, only to be locked behind bars in Texas.

People heard. Individuals and communities heard. The State shrugged.

And so now the women of Karnes are on hunger and work strike, and that is the story, the miracle of humanity. The mothers of Karnes have written a letter, which reads, in part: “In the name of the mothers, residents of the Center for Detentions in Karnes City, we are writing this petition whereby we ask to be set free with our children. There are mothers here who have been locked in this place for as long as 10 months … We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status and we are being treated like delinquents. We are not delinquents nor do we pose any threat to this country. You should know that this is only the beginning and we will not stop until we achieve our objectives. This strike will continue until every one of us is freed. The conditions, in which our children find themselves, are not good. Our children are not eating well and every day they are losing weight. Their health is deteriorating. We know that any mother would do what we are doing for their children. We deserve to be treated with some dignity and that our rights, to the immigration process, be respected.”

You can support the women by signing their petition to ICE director Sarah Saldaña and ICE San Antonio Office Director Norma Lacy. The demand is pretty straightforward: Grant discretion & RELEASE the children and mothers detained at Karnes!

Once, providing asylum to those who needed it was considered a sacred act. In the Book of Numbers, God ordered Moses to create “cities of refuge” or “cities of asylum,” for those fleeing unjust punishment. Women, like Ruth and Naomi, strangers in a strange land, could hope to take refuge in the shadow of the wings of a divinity embodied in human acts of mutual recognition. Today, the descendants of Ruth and Naomi live in Karnes, and they demand their freedom to be human beings: “We will keep refusing food until our demands for release are recognized. We will fight until we are granted our liberty. We’re tired of the treatment we’re receiving here. Our children are all losing weight because they’ve lost their appetites. It’s like we’re living in a jail.” Today, Ruth is named Kenia, and she’s 26 and from Honduras.

(Lead image credit: The Rag Blog) (Letter image: Colorlines)

Texas built a special hell for immigrant women and children

Today, December 18, 2014, is International Migrants Day. On December 18, 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. What better way to honor that convention than to build the biggest, baddest prison for migrant women and children? Welcome to Texas, welcome to the United States of America, welcome to hell.

Here’s how the United States builds hell. First, constitute migrants and immigrants as a threat. Include asylum seekers and refugees in this. Then, quickly translate threat into criminal element. Then build the prisons, et voilà! Hell! Homeland Security keeps building prisons for immigrants and migrants. It builds “family detention centers” for women and children. It then outsources the job to a limited number of mega companies. They keep failing at the job and then keep getting new contracts. The prisons keep “running into difficulties”, ranging from lack of health care and education and recreational facilities to overcrowding to sexual exploitation and violence by the staff.

Early this week, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson toured a site in Dilley, Texas, that `promises’ to be the largest “family residential center” in the country. By end of May, it will hold 2400 “family members,” overwhelmingly women and children, overwhelmingly from Central America. Meanwhile, earlier in December, after some debate and resistance, Karnes County agreed to expand its “family residence” from under 600 to close to 1200 beds. Forcing children and women to live behind razor wire is a growth industry in south Texas this year. Homeland Security sees dropping children into cages as “a deterrent.”

Here’s a typical story from Karnes: “Ana and Victor are from El Salvador, and along with their mother, Alta Gracias, and their 2-year-old brother, Martín, they have been held at the Karnes detention facility for over two months … As the years passed and her children grew up, Alta worried about raising her children in an environment rife with extreme poverty and violence … She was afraid her daughter’s pretty face and her son’s rambunctious spirit would get them into trouble. So she did what any good parent would do: look for a brighter future for her children. Because her husband was already in the United States, it seemed like the best option, despite the hazardous journey.”

Here’s another typical story from Karnes: “This fall, Zadia and her son Jose came to the United States to escape years of physical abuse by her common-law husband. With the help of members of their church, Zadia and Jose fled Honduras. But rather than find refuge, they have been locked up for the last seven weeks in Karnes City, Texas, at one of the federal government’s new detention centers for migrant families.”

The typical is actually worse. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and others have written letters, filed complaints, and sued the Federal government because of the conditions at Karnes. MALDEF has documented numerous cases of sexual abuse, extortion and harassment of women. The ACLU cites numerous women, who fled domestic violence at home, only to be locked behind bars in Texas.

None of this is new. It repeats the violence against women that marked T. Don Hutto Residential Center, five years ago also in Texas, and the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona and the Artesia “Family Residential Center” in New Mexico. Everyone of them a colossal snake pit of sexual violence, extortion, harassment of women and children. Everyone of them a death-in-life sentence for hundreds and thousands of children and their mothers. Each time the violence is “discovered”, the “residents” are shipped like so much cargo to the next killing field.

Honor International Migrants Day by celebrating the miracle of freedom, freedom of movement, association, life, choice and love. Celebrate the miracle of being truly human. Close the prisons. Tear down the walls. Beat the guns into plowshares and the barbed wire and batons into pruning hooks. Welcome the migrants with open arms. Welcome the stranger as yourself.

 

(Image Credit: NewInt.org)