Amalia Leal: We came to seek refuge, and instead we found punishment.

Women prisoners, almost exclusively Central American and Mexican, at T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, recognized Thanksgiving by engaging in a hunger strike, both in their own name and in solidarity with largely Bangladeshi hunger strikers in Alabama and California. It’s a small world after all, in the global gulag of asylum seeker and refugee detention.

The stories of the women intersect with the story of T. Don Hutto and of the current U.S. regime. T. Don Hutto opened, as T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, in 2006. From the outset, it was a nightmare. Finally, after three years of prisoner protests, supporter protests and law suits, the government decided to shut it down … sort of. In 2009, T. Don Hutto was into a women’s immigration prison, and it’s been a special hell for immigrant women. The Correction Corporation of America runs T. Don Hutto, and they must be very proud of it, since they named the facility after T. Don Hutto, one of the company’s three founders.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is equally proud of T. Don Hutto: “The T. Don Hutto Residential Center (TDHRC) represents a unique and pioneering setting, offering the least restrictive environment permissible to manage persons in administrative U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. In keeping with the director’s call for civil detention reform, TDHRC represents a clear departure from historical detention settings. Residents experience expanded services that include free and open movement, recreational and educational participation, food services and medical and mental health care. TDHRC’s person-centered philosophy guides every interaction with the residents by understanding the often complex circumstances surrounding their detention. TDHRC continues to fulfill the mission of ICE while at the same time recognizing and valuing the dignity of the individual.”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, over 100 mostly Bangladeshi prisoners Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, Theo Lacey Facility in Orange County, California, and Otay Detention Facility in San Diego went on hunger strike. Behind them was another Bangladeshi women’s hunger strike.

In October 54 South Asian women started a hunger strike at ICE’s El Paso Processing Center. Five days later, 14 Indian and Bangladeshi women began a hunger strike at ICE’s La Salle Detention Facility in La Salle, Louisiana. La Salle and El Paso hold women and children.

At the time Francisca Morales Macis, a Mexican domestic abuse survivor, was being held at T. Don Hutto. She heard of the hunger strike, and started her own. Within days, over 100 women were on hunger strike. The women described horrendous conditions, including extraordinarily long waits for adjudication. The average wait in the Houston immigration court is 703 days. Francisca Morales Macis and Amalia Arteaga Leal, a Honduran refugee, were identified as the chief organizers of the hunger strike. Both were peremptorily transferred to the South Texas Detention Center, in Pearsall, Texas. South Texas Detention Center is an overwhelmingly male detention center. ICE says this was not retaliation because there was no hunger strike. How could there by a hunger strike in a person-centered institution?

According to Amalia Arteago Leal, “They brought us here from the T. Don Hutto detention center because there was a hunger strike there. Many people were protesting because we want our freedom. We have spent a lot of time appealing our cases, and we are not receiving answers, and when they call us, they always tell us that they are postponing us or giving us other dates, and the truth is, we’ve spent a lot of time in detention and we can’t tolerate this much time … I think that it’s unjust that they have detained us for so much time, because I think we have the right to bond. We came to seek refuge, and instead we found punishment. What I want people to understand is that they should support us, because it’s true that we have entered the United States for a second time, but I want to apply for bond. I’m on strike because I want my freedom. I can’t tolerate imprisonment anymore, because I am between four walls and I think this has a psychological impact. We come from our own country with our problems, and many times, we can’t get out of these problems — we’re trapped, imprisoned — and now, we’ve come to another form of imprisonment. For me, I think it’s an injustice.”

The women in T. Don Hutto know the truth. It’s a prison, where `person-centered’ treatment ranges from abuse to torture. Shut it down, today. Set the women free now. It’s way past time.

 

(Photo Credit: Grassroots Leadership / Twitter / 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)

In the United States, when the police attack, “it’s the women’s fault”

 

Many have watched the video of Lt. John Pike, of the University of California Davis police department, casually spray a line of seated, peaceful protesters, and many have expressed horror. Many have expressed horror as well at the decision by the University President Linda Katehi to call in the police in the first place.

The horror is real and well deserved, as are the condemnations. But the surprise and shock are something else altogether. The violence committed was absolutely ordinary. Ask people of color across the United States. In particular, ask immigrant women of color.

Violence by police officers, by detention center staff, by the State, against immigrant women of color happens every day. The United States has declared war on immigrant women of color, and like so many wars of recent years, the war is identified as a form of peace making. Thus, the United States is `really’ waging peace against immigrant women of color. If they have scars, if they suffer trauma, if they lose their children or their partners, if they are sexually abused … it’s the women’s fault. They shouldn’t have opposed the peace process.

Institutional violence against women of color immigrants is ordinary. It happens every day in immigrant detention centers, like T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor, Texas. Sara, Kimberly and Raquel `Doe’ are three asylum seekers currently suing Hutto’s owner/operator, Corrections Corporation of America, CCA, for the sexual violence and abuse they suffered while `guests of the system.’ They are part of a fast growing sisterhood, a nation of Does.

Police and State violence against women of color immigrants happens every day on the streets. Ask Susana Ramirez, who never had trouble with the law in either the US or Mexico, until one night she was stopped for … basically for nothing. She changed lanes without signaling. Next thing, her daughters were whisked away, and Ramirez faced deportation. Threatened in Durango, Ramirez was threatened in Illinois. She is part of a fast growing sisterhood as well, of women of color immigrants who face, and often face down, the culture of fear and intimidation.

State violence against women of color immigrants happens every day, when families are split up by ICE, when children are taken away and lost into the so-called foster care system. Those children are disappeared, kidnapped, and their parents are left to search for them. In the first six months of 2011, 46,000 parents of US-born citizens were deported. What happened to their children? What is happening to their children?

Sometimes, the mothers, like Clara and Josefina, sisters, are taken away, and the children, effectively, vanish. Other times, the mothers are US-citizen partners to men who are deported and are left stranded. That the children are US citizens is irrelevant to the State. Where once nations recognized citoyens du sang, citizens of blood, now they create immigrants of blood. Citizenship doesn’t matter: it’s what in your bones, in your blood, in your DNA.

Some say the brutality of the immigration detention system is inhumane. It’s worse than inhumane. It’s humanity-to-come, the promised land. Militarized police, militarized borders, increased sexual violence and abuse against immigrant women of color, increased and intensified systemic racist and sexist violence directed at immigrant women of color … and for what? To keep the nation safe, free and democratic. Behind those words is the real promise: this is what humanity will look like.

In Davis, police and University have committed violence casually and even comfortably. In so doing, they are not alone and they are not exceptional. In fact, they’re quite ordinary, and therein is the horror.

 

(Image Credit: PBS Frontline)

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state

Pagani detention center, Greece

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state.  Asylum haunts the principle of democracy by positing a citizenship of higher order than that of the national variety. This asylum citizenship is based not in identity, not in birthright, not in lineage or kin, not in relationship to the nation-state. Instead, asylum citizenship is based in the conditions of life, in need, in a will to survive, in a demand for dignity. The asylum citizenship is the unknown and unknowable stranger who demands recognition as a familiar. Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has given up on the structures of power and the logic of the nation-State. It is neither a superior citizenship nor a more powerful one nor a wealthier one. Nor is the asylum citizen more privileged.  Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has always already been with us, and so precedes the noise of national sovereignty and of national due process, as it exceeds the furor and the hurly burly of the rule of law.

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state because it puts the notion of demos in crisis. Asylum haunts the democratic nation-state because it preceded the nation-state. Asylum does not participate in the nation-state historical narratives of progress, those stories that make the invention and maintenance of the nation-state the pinnacle of civilization. For thousands of years women, men, children have sought, received or were denied asylum. They continue to do so today. This seeming eternal repetition of the same does not mean that those who seek asylum today are somehow `primitive’. Asylum as an aspect of the human condition is no more inevitable than torture or genocide, and no less historical or historically produced.

Women asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme. Children of asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they also demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme.  They step out of the shadows, ask for help, and they are punished. For women asylum seekers and for their children, the modern democratic nation-state is a tight knit and tighter fisted brotherhood, and women asylum seekers and their children are not brothers.

How does the contemporary democratic nation-state respond to the asylum citizen? Prison. Yarl’s Wood, in the UK. T. Don Hutto, in the US. Villawood, in Australia. Lindela, in South Africa. Pagani, in Greece. Via Corelli, in Italy. Opbouw, in the Netherlands. Vottem, in Belgium. Glasmoor, in Germany.  The list goes on, the construction of new `reception centers’ continues, the cells continue to grow more intensely overcrowded. This is the way the modern democratic nation-state recognizes, understands, absorbs, responds to and resolves asylum. Sequestration. Intimidation. Torture, `if necessary’. Expulsion. The nation-state calls these reception centers, residential centers.  And so, this must be the architecture of reception and residence in the modern democratic nation-state.

Fifteen years ago, Jacques Derrida was asked to discuss the ways in which the French population was “taken by surprise” by immigration of the sans-papiers, the undocumented: “Immigration is no higher now than it was a half-century ago.  Yet today it takes people by surprise. It seems to have surprised the social body and the political class, and it seems that the discourses of both right and left, by refusing illegal immigrants (immigrés clandestins), have degenerated into xenophobia in an unexpected way.”

Derrida replied, in part, “A politics that does not maintain a reference to the principle of unconditional hospitality is a politics that loses its reference to justice.  It may retain its rights … but it loses justice. Along with the right to speak of justice in any credible way. …One would have to try to distinguish between a politics of immigration and the respect to the right of asylum.  In principle the right of asylum … is paradoxically less political because it is not modeled in principle on the interests of  the body proper of the nation-state that guarantees this right.  But … it is almost impossible to delimit the properly political nature of the motivations for exile – those that … justify a request for asylum. After all, unemployment in a foreign country is a dysfunction of democracy and a kind of political persecution. Moreover, the market plays a part in this; the rich countries always share in the responsibility (if only through foreign debt and everything it symbolizes) for the politico-economic situations that push people into exile or emigration. And here we touch on the limits of the political and juridical:…a right of asylum can be null or infinite.”

From the perspective of asylum, in the modern democratic nation-state, there is no right, there is no left. These niceties are irrelevant. Instead there is only unconditional hospitality … or there is none. And where there is none, there is injustice. More precisely, there is the loss of justice and the loss of the `right’, the capacity, to speak of justice credibly.  Xenophobia cannot credibly surprise anyone, it is the national democratic politics of false hospitality. The particular `indignities’ visited upon women asylum seekers  cannot surprise anyone. They are manifestations of the patriarchy that reigns supreme in the violent and violating absence of unconditional hospitality.

 

(Photo Credit: UNHCR / EU Observer)

The rule of lawless

The United States immigrant detention system has been called a gulag. The California state prison system has been called a golden gulag. Millions of women, children, men inhabit severely overcrowded, ferociously under-resourced, rigorously unmonitored and opaque `centers’. This gulag has been likened to sites of bare life where national sovereignty is articulated by the power and capacity to kill and to reduce life to physical survival, and less. These descriptions are accurate, but they miss something. It turns out that the U.S. immigration detention system is just the most recent articulation of the rule of lawless.

The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law. In fact, when the rule of law looks in the mirror, it’s the lawless it sees, and then quickly names as dangerous other. This became clear this past week, when the Obama administration announced its intention to overhaul the immigrant detention system.

National Public Radio reported, “The Obama administration is planning to overhaul the nation’s immigrant detention system.” According to The New York Times, “The Obama administration intends to announce an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a `truly civil detention system.’” The Austin American-Statesman called it a larger and then, the next day, a broader “overhaul of the nation’s immigration detention system”.

Everyone cried overhaul. Overhaul, to change significantly, abruptly, swiftly, with force or violence.

The first site of this supposed overhaul is the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, in Taylor, Texas, a notorious private prison, run by the Corrections Corporation of America, and just down the road from Austin.

Hutto came to public attention over the past few years for its abysmal treatment of children and women. The ACLU, the Women’s Refugee Commission and others weighed in and waged mighty campaigns. Now, children will no longer be sent to Hutto. In fact, `families’ will no longer be sent to Hutto. They’re going to the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility, in Leesport, Pennsylvania.

But Hutto will stay open, as an all-women’s immigration detention center. Michelle Chen, of RaceWire, wrote a terrific piece, “New Direction for Detention?”, that explains in great detail what Hutto means for women, what immigrant detention has meant for women. It’s been terrible, and there’s no reason to think it will improve.

At the same time, and here’s where the rule of lawless kicks in, many think the only way to overhaul the system would be to actually overhaul the system. NPR reporter Michelle Brand interviewed NPR reporter Daniel Zwerdling on the overhaul. Zwerdling reminded Brand that immigrant detainees are “civil detainees”. They are charged with having broken civil, or administrative, laws, “like overstaying a visa”, but are housed with “regular criminals”, and so are treated accordingly: beaten, overcrowded. Many die for lack of medical care. Treated like prisoners in the U.S. system. Ask California, under order to release 43,000 prisoners. The difference is that the immigrants are, again, civil. As Zwerdling explained, “government officials have told me that 90 percent of the immigrants they detain never have a lawyer. So they can’t really even challenge their own detention.”

Why don’t they have lawyers? Because constitutionally, they don’t exist.

“Zwerdling: ` lawyers say the best way to make sure the jails treat immigrants humanely is to pass a law that requires it. Period.’

Brand: ` So, wait, there’s no law that says treat detainees humanely?’

Zwerdling: ` No, absolutely not. The detention standards are legally just guidelines, you know, so nobody can actually force the government and the jails to obey them.

And now some members of Congress have introduced bills that would turn those standards into law. And I asked the Homeland Security spokesman today, will you support that? And he said, no. And I said, why? And he did not give me an answer.’”

That, in a nutshell, is the rule of law. If no law says your category must be treated humanely, you have no legal, juridical protection. Period. And you will not get an answer from members of State about that. More accurately, radical silence shall be your answer.

According to Michelle Brané, Director of the Detention and Asylum program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, when it comes to immigrants, “Our current laws are unforgiving and unrealistic.” Yes, but our current system of non-laws is lethal.

This legal system is one of negation. Everywhere, this negation, this system of absence-of-law, this reliance on written law as the only means of preventing abuse and atrocity, as the only means of `protection’, this is the rule of lawless. The rule of lawless haunts the rule of law, and it targets women. Don’t send women to Hutto. Shut it down.

(Image Credit: WomensRefugeeCommission.org)