When Asylum-Seeking Women And Children Immigrants
Are Welcomed Like Criminals
MARTIN: And this is For The Record.
There are 11.3 million people in the U.S. who have immigrated here illegally. And as you probably heard, the presidential candidates have different opinions about how to handle them - most notably, the GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who wants them deported. Here he is speaking in Tucson, Ariz., last night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: Illegal immigration is going to stop. It's dangerous. It's terrible. We either have a border or we don't. And if we don't have a border, we don't have a country. Remember that.
MARTIN: The whole immigration debate intensified a couple of years ago when a flood of women and children came across the U.S.-Mexico border.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Wall of protesters blocked the road into the Murrietta Border Patrol station. The buses with many women and children turned around. A hundred and forty undocumented migrants left for another station.
MARTIN: The federal government didn't know how to handle the influx, so they put these women and children in three family detention centers - two in Texas, one in Pennsylvania. Today, there are more than 1,000 people in these centers, waiting to know if they'll be allowed to stay in the U.S. For The Record today - detaining families at the border.
It was the fall of 2014, and Maria Rosa Lopez had nowhere to turn. She spoke to us through a translator.
MARIA ROSA LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) It's not easy to explain because there was a lot of violence at home. And then outside my home, I really didn't have anybody. And so I couldn't get help.
MARTIN: Her husband was abusive, and she feared for her life and the lives of her three kids.
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) I called the police a couple of times. But they didn't show up. And that was when I really needed them. The cops are not to trust, but when you're pushed to the wall, and you don't have anybody to call, the police is the only place you can go to. But they didn't help me.
MARTIN: She was living in Honduras, which has one of the highest crime rates in Central America. Violence was all around her, and it finally got so bad Maria decided she would take her youngest child and flee. They walked to the border with Guatemala.
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) So I knocked on someone's door when I was finally in Guatemala. I needed to wash my boy and myself. And they helped - this family helped me. And then I was able to catch a bus to the capital - to Guatemala City.
MARTIN: Maria, what had you told your son? How did you explain to him.
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) My son was asking me to leave. He wanted to get out of Honduras. He went through a lot of violence himself.
MARTIN: From Guatemala City, she and her son crossed another border, into Mexico, and then they took a bus north to Monterey.
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) ...The city close to the Mexico-U.S. border. I paid someone to take us across the river on a boat. It was nighttime, and we slept in the desert on the U.S. side. There were other moms and their kids there too. A Brazilian woman asked me if she could sleep next to us. The immigration officers woke us up the following morning, and they took us to a detention center.
MARTIN: The center is called Karnes, and it's outside of San Antonio, Texas. Maria and her son were some of the thousands of people who fled from Central America to the U.S. in 2014, escaping gang violence, drug war, civil war, or, in Maria's case, domestic abuse, which is considered a credible fear that can warrant an asylum claim. And that's what Maria wanted - asylum so she and her son could start their lives over in the U.S. She didn't know what to expect when she got on American soil, but she didn't expect to be housed in this facility with no word on when she'd be released.
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) I was desperate when we got there. It was hard to see my child crying. And he was asking a lot of questions. He knew that it was a detention center, and he wanted to know how long we were going to be there. We didn't know. No one was answering questions. I met people who had been there for six, eight months. And it was very depressing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) Often, my son couldn't fall asleep. We had bunk beds, and he was on top of me. But he would crawl down and wanted to be with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DENISE GILMAN: The Karnes facility, where I've worked most often, is a typical jail-like facility.
MARTIN: This is Denise Gilman. She's director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, and she was one of Maria's lawyers.
GILMAN: Cinderblock walls, clanging doors, x-ray machines all over the place, buzzers that you have to use to get in and out to go see your, you know, 9-year-old client and his mom - it feels very much like a prison.
MARTIN: Denise Gilman says these women and children are seeking asylum, but they're treated like criminals. Oftentimes, they have family members who've made it to the U.S. already. And she says these new immigrants should be able to stay with their families while their cases proceed.
Is there a risk, though, that if you let these people go live with their families that they'll just go off the grid, and they won't report when they've got court date?
GILMAN: The families have every incentive to appear for their hearings. They need this protection - the ability to remain in the United States with stability, with the ability to work and integrate into the community, so that they can be safe, recover from the trauma they've experienced, and avoid facing possible harm or death in their home countries.
MARTIN: Phil Miller is with ICE, which stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and it's part of the Department of Homeland Security. And as you might imagine, he has a different view of the detention facilities.
PHIL MILLER: Some nongovernmental organizations are kind of promulgating these kind of gulag-like scenarios where, you know, women are locked in rooms and they can't see their children. And what you actually see is there's a school there for the children. There's gyms. There's open cafeterias. I mean, eating in the cafeteria there is no different than where my kids go to eat - you know, the school cafeteria. We take our responsibility - our custodial and care responsibility - very seriously.
MARTIN: Miller says the facilities were the best way to respond to the crisis at the time. Advocacy groups filed legal challenges against the government for holding women and children for months. The government made changes after that. And now immigrants are expedited through family detention in a matter of weeks. Detention was supposed to deter immigrants, but there are other forces at work. Phil Miller points to criminal syndicates throughout Central America that prey on vulnerable people looking to flee desperate situations. And they perpetuate the myth that all it takes is putting your feet on U.S. soil, and then you'll get some kind of permisos, or permit, to stay.
MILLER: But a lot of folks were convinced that if they made it to a border patrol station that they would be receiving these permisos. So really, we had to do something that historically ICE had done in very small numbers, which was devise a strategy where we could process, vet and detain these folks that were coming to the border in these numbers, which is why we took, you know, this historical step of expanding our family detention capacity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: In 2014, at the height of the crisis, more than 136,000 unaccompanied minors and families were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley.
REPRESENTATIVE ROGER WILLIAMS: Well, let me tell you - I have seen all that that you describe. And it literally tears your heart out.
MARTIN: This is Texas Republican Congressman Roger Williams. He's seen how border agents try to vet all the immigrants right after they've crossed into the U.S.
WILLIAMS: Maybe there's a sign above there that says ages 3 to 10. And then there's the women. And then you go to another area, and there's the 3 to 10-year-old boys, just like they had with the girls. And, I mean, it tears you apart. You know, they've got an apple, a banana, and water. And then you go and there's fathers. And then you go to another area, and there might be a dozen of the worst and meanest people in the world that they've also captured down on the border.
MARTIN: And that's the group he's most concerned about.
WILLIAMS: There's a lot of issues down there, and being from Texas and being engaged like I am, you realize it is very, very serious. But at the end of the day, we are a land of laws, and we've got to maintain American sovereignty. And we want people to come here the right way.
MARTIN: A lot of these women, they're looking for asylum, right? They're looking for a different path. They're not trying to sneak in. They often present themselves to border patrol agents.
WILLIAMS: They do. But they're not coming from a nation, in many cases - a lot of these nations might be at war or whatever. They have different entrance programs. They're coming over for a better life for their family. I get it. But, you know, it's still - we've got to do it the right way.
MARTIN: That right way includes creating more deterrence, which is why Congressman Williams supports building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
After six months in the Karnes Detention Facility, Maria's 9-year-old son was granted asylum, and she was released along with him. Maria's brother lives in Baltimore, so he flew her and her son out there to live with him. Today, Maria's son is in second grade. She works part-time cleaning at a restaurant. It's not enough to live on, but it's a start.
Is it the life you dreamed of?
LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) Not really - I didn't dream about this. But this is the way things have turned out. I'm just very thankful to God because I'm alive, I'm well, and I'm fighting for my children.
MARTIN: Maria's two teenage daughters are still in Honduras. Now that her case has been settled, Maria is going to focus her energy on bringing her other kids here too.
For the record today, that was Maria Rosa Lopez. We also heard from her lawyer, Denise Gilman, Bill Miller from the Department of Homeland Security and Texas Congressman Roger Williams.
We should also note, this past week the director of ICE, Sarah Saldana, said the federal government is considering ending the detention of women and children at the Karnes facility in Texas.
Copyright © 2016 NPR.