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Advocates offer humane alternatives to detention for survivors of violence at congressional briefing

Angela’s* son turned 3 inside the confines of a crowded detention center. He was stuck there, along with hundreds of other mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America.

A few months earlier, Angela fled El Salvador with her son in a panic with only a few possessions. She was on the run from her husband, a man who tormented her throughout their relationship. She tried calling the police multiple times, but nobody picked up the phone. The violence in her home escalated until, one day, her husband grabbed a pistol and put it against her head, then her son’s. He threatened to kill them both.

Angela could endure no more. She fled to the United States, hoping to find refuge. Instead, she found herself and her son in an immigration detention center in Artesia, N.M., where her suffering continued. She had frequent nightmares about the violence she had endured. Her hair began falling out. Her son didn’t eat.

With the help of an attorney, she pleaded with a judge for safety.

“I left my home not because I wanted to, but because I had to. There was nowhere in my country where I could be safe. If I remained there, my son’s father would have killed both of us … My son deserves to have a chance at life,” the mother explained in a written statement.

Angela was granted asylum, but hundreds of refugees like her and her son remain locked up in detention centers in Texas. She shared her statement Thursday at a congressional briefing that called for an end to family detention of immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other forms of gender-based violence.

The bipartisan Congressional Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform, in partnership with nine non-profit immigrant advocacy organizations and initiatives, including Tahirih Justice Center, hosted the congressional briefing, “Retraumatizing and Inhumane: Detaining Immigrant Survivors of Violence against Women and Children,” at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC.

Briefing participants, including Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., expressed deep concern for hundreds of immigrant mothers and children now suffering at detention centers in remote Karnes and Dilley, Texas.

“These mothers are struggling every day to maintain a sense of normalcy for their children under extremely stressful conditions, all the while fighting their asylum cases within the confines of a cell with little or no access to attorneys,” Rep. Chu said at the briefing.

“Locking up families who have viable asylum claims in order to deter future migration is unjust and serves no justifiable purpose because we know that mothers will always protect their children from violence at all costs.”

Chu and briefing panelists, including Tahirih Director of Public Policy Archi Pyati, stressed the need for trauma-informed approaches to helping survivors of violence and offered humane alternatives to detention for women and children.

“We are talking about refugees: people who are fleeing violence and asking for our help to stay safe,” Pyati said.

The majority of women currently in detention may have viable asylum claims and may also qualify for other protections established for survivors of trafficking and other serious crimes under U.S. law, she said.

“From a legal perspective,” Pyati said, “we are not living up to our obligations as a country to offer these women a pathway to see if they are qualified for asylum status because of the very fact that they are locked up in these detention centers.”

Tahirih clients in detention have reported being denied access to medical and mental health services. Other detainees have difficulty accessing attorneys and translation services in remote facilities that are hours away from metropolitan areas. In jail-like settings, post-traumatic stress and other symptoms of trauma are exacerbated, making it harder for victims to tell their stories.

After close consultation with advocates in the field and its Houston office, which remains at the forefront of the effort to protect immigrant survivors caught in the border crisis, Tahirih recommends that Congress press the Department of Homeland Security to:

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONGRESS

    1. Stop prolonged detention of immigrant women and children.


    2. Utilize alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets and telephonic check-ins, that have been tried and tested with great success and cost taxpayers three quarters of a million dollars less per day than detaining women and children.


    3. Implement a trauma-informed approach that demonstrates an understanding of the impact of violence and the exacerbating effects of long-term, indefinite detention while women and children are detained.

Along with partner organizations, Tahirih has shared the appalling stories of our clients with the Obama Administration to ensure that those at the highest levels understand the impediments that detention places on women and children’s ability to receive due process and make their claims for protection under U.S. law.

Tahirih met with and submitted statements to the White House, as well as several divisions of the Department of Homeland Security, including the Ombudsman’s office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and as a result of those meetings, met last week with Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Mayorkas.

“We are achieving some momentum on a few fronts, specifically in developing a plan for use of alternatives to detention and in improving mental health services to detained women and children. We will continue to press for our recommendations until we are confident that the United States is meeting its legal and moral obligations to survivors of violence,” Pyati said.

Tahirih was proud to work with ACLU, American Immigration Lawyers Association, ASISTA, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Latin@ Network of Casa de Esperanza, We Belong Together: Women for Commonsense Immigration Reform, and Women’s Refugee Commission to sponsor this Thursday’s briefing with the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform.

*Name has been changed to protect client safety and privacy.

LEARN MORE

If you are member of the media and would like to arrange an interview with panelist Archi Pyati, Director of Public Policy at Tahirih Justice Center, please contact Marlena Hartz at 571-282-6193 or marlenah@tahirih.org.

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