As video spreads of protest inside family detention during Congressional tour, DHS Secretary admits family detention is flawed

The last few weeks have seen some of the most heartening and heartbreaking moments in the fight to end family detention. Several mothers and children who had been detained for nearly a year were released last week from the Karnes County Residential Center. Additionally, seven refugee families who have been detained for more than 9 months under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s “no bond” policy were finally granted bonds. The catch is that the families now need to raise enormous bonds in order to walk free, totalling more than $60,000. You can visit their fundraising page to learn more and contribute towards their freedom. These releases were likely influenced by pressure ICE is feeling from pending legal negotiations on the Flores settlement, which some say could end family detention altogether.

While celebrating these releases, there have been constant reminders of the continuing injustice of the entire family detention system. Nineteen-year-old mother Lilian Oliva Bardales attempted suicide and was rapidly deported from Dilley without receiving any mental health care or being allowed to see her attorney. In the course of a couple days, she was placed in isolation, separated from her son, hidden in a hotel room, and finally deported before getting to exhaust her appeals to stay in the U.S. She shared her traumatic experience in an interview from Honduras where she still fears for her life. Meanwhile, in the Berks family detention camp in Pennsylvania, mothers began a work strike to protest conditions, the exploitation of their labor, and the prolonged detention of themselves and their children.

In an encouraging development, national legislators are responding to this pressure, with members of President Obama’s own party calling for an end to the Administration’s family detention policy. They, along with numerous advocacy organizations, flatly rejected a May 13th  announcement by ICE proposing more oversight while continuing lengthy detention of families. Last Thursday, eight House members announced that they would tour the two Texas family detention camps and expressed concern over the Obama Administration's family detention policy in a press conference.

The tours of Karnes and Dilley, held on Monday June 22 and Tuesday June 23 respectively, are the latest attempts by legislators to investigate the far-reaching humanitarian concerns over the detention of asylum-seeking mothers and children. The representatives who toured the detention camps are among the 136 House Democrats who signed a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson calling for an end to family detention.

Monday, after visiting Karnes, those members of Congress seemed more committed than ever to ending family detention. “What I saw today did nothing but confirm my belief walking through the door that we should end the jailing of women and children,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (CA-19), “That’s not what civilized societies do.” Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (IL-04) reportedly met with a mother of a 4 year old who had been detained for a year. “A quarter of that child’s life has been in a detention center. It’s all that he knows,” Gutierrez said.

During Tuesday's Congressional tour of Dilley, detained families made it crystal clear that regardless of conditions in the detention camp, what they wanted was their freedom. Mothers and children with signs gathered outside several of the portable buildings and chanted “Libertad,” or “Freedom,” holding makeshift signs made from pillowcases and bed sheets. Protests have become a standard feature inside family detention centers, after the recent work strike inside Berks and mid-April hunger strikes in Karnes. The only unusual thing about this one is that it was captured in a rare video by one of the members of Congress who was apparently permitted to take a cell phone into the facility. ICE strictly limits the movements of others, such as attorneys and human rights observers, in the detention centers.

It still remains to be seen how ICE will respond to Tuesday’s protest, but due to the video released to Buzzfeed, it seems clear that their typical strategy of denying it ever happened will not be an option. What is clear is that the Obama Administration is finally feeling the pressure from its own party and civil society for instituting a policy reminiscent of Japanese internment during WWII.

In his second announcement regarding family detention in the span of a little over a month, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a press release Wednesday morning announcing further changes to ICE’s family detention policy. While the announcement neither ends family detention nor closes the detention camps, it claims that the agency will discontinue the long-term detention of families. It remains to be seen how these changes will influence families on the ground at Karnes, Dilley, and Berks.

Only one thing is certain: with increasing advocacy from grassroots to grasstops, all eyes will be watching what happens next for family detention.