All across the country families are celebrating Mother’s Day. Mothers, grandmothers and children will share time together and perhaps enjoy a meal or express their appreciation in a variety of ways. For most, Mother’s Day is a feel-good holiday.
However, for the thousands of refugee mothers and children held hostage in prison-like conditions by a wrong-headed and mean-spirited U.S. policy, there will be little to celebrate.
Mothers in the private prison camps, like the many I have met in recent years as an anthropologist researching the experience of indigenous female migrants, will spend the day worrying about the affects this incarceration is having on their children.
They will be anxious about their children’s weight loss or increasing listlessness as depression overtakes them. Or, perhaps they will spend the day thinking about the effects of the sexual harassment they have suffered at the hands of guards in front of their children.
If they are among the more than 75 women who bravely undertook a hunger strike to try to bring attention to their unjustified imprisonment, they may spend the day worrying about whether their children will be taken away from them in retaliation, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have threatened and a recent lawsuit seeks to stop. Or, they may spend the day in fear that they will be deported to their home countries, where they or their children may be killed.
As a mother myself, I wonder how great my fear would have to be for me to undertake the incredibly difficult decision to leave my home with my children and undertake a difficult and dangerous journey toward a highly uncertain future in a country that is hostile to us. These mothers did what I or any mother would do: whatever was necessary to keep their children from harm.
When they arrived in our country and asked for refuge, they were placed in a barely camouflaged prison called Karnes or in a barely camouflaged internment camp called Dilley. They are held in these private prisons — some for close to a year now — despite being in civil political asylum proceedings and in many cases have already passed the first step of that process, which is demonstrating credible fear of return to their countries.
What could and should happen is that they be released on bail while their cases are adjudicated.
But ICE and the Department of Homeland Security have decided against that, saying that freeing them would cause a flood of new migrants to this country (though no credible evidence of this possibility has been shown). They are being held — and suffering from declining physical and mental health — for political reasons that have nothing to do with their cases. This is wrong and needs to stop.
Although some people argue that these immigrants have broken the law by entering the country without visas, coming to our border is the only way for refugees to request political asylum. They cannot do so and request a visa in advance from Central America. Under the law, they are in civil, not criminal, proceedings. International law strongly recommends that refugees and asylum seekers be free during the processing of their cases.
Others argue that if released, they will not return for their hearings and will join the legions of undocumented immigrants. However, studies have shown that asylum seekers freed on bail are remarkably consistent in appearing for their hearings, with a no-show rate of as little as 5.7 percent, which is considerably lower than for other types of immigrants.
The Obama administration is now considering ending family detention. I hope that those with the power to terminate this heinous policy think long and hard this Mother’s Day as they enjoy the holiday with their families.
Imprisoning mothers and children is inhumane. So, how about this for a Mother’s Day gift? End family detention. This is one wrong we can right.
Shannon Speed is an associate professor of anthropology and director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.
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