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Stop warehousing immigrant mothers and children

The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of groups has sued the federal government to challenge its policies denying a fair deportation process to mothers and children held in a family detention center in Artesia who have fled extreme violence, death threats, rape and persecution in Central America.

Simply put, warehousing vulnerable children and their mothers is wrong. It’s also wrong to deport children without due process and send them back to their deaths.

Indeed, preliminary reports suggest between five and 10 children we’ve deported back to gang-violence-plagued Honduras since February have been murdered.

The ACLU visited with many of the women and children at the new family detention center in Artesia, where our government holds about 600 Central American mothers and children during their immigration proceedings. More than half of the detainees are children and infants, with an average age of six and a half.

These families have traveled thousands of hard, dangerous miles to escape the violence that made their homes unlivable. They shared with us testimonies of the death threats and extortion they and their children had experienced.

One woman showed us a written threat she received that ultimately forced her to shut down her successful business, grab her child and flee. Another confided that her daughter’s best friend in school had been raped, tortured and killed. “I came here to protect my daughter,” she said.

Having escaped one nightmare, they find themselves trapped in another.

There is a palpable sense of desperation, isolation and bewilderment among the families at the center, which is more than three hours away from the nearest public interest immigration attorney.

Many of the women we spoke with had no meaningful orientation to their rights in the U.S. immigration system, with no access to counsel prior to facing an asylum officer or immigration judge.

Any semblance of due process quickly crumbles when you see women and their children attempting to navigate complex legal proceedings with life-or-death consequences without even understanding the language on the forms they are signing.

Not only are these detention centers unjust, they are inhumane. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that putting children in isolated detention is bad for their health.

Many mothers told us their children were feeling depressed and losing weight. One woman’s child was running a fever and had not been able to eat in four days. We watched as the child ate a small bowl of cereal and, moments later, threw it up.

Many of the women at Artesia have parents, spouses or other relatives who already live in the United States, including in New Mexico. But while their families stand ready to house and care for them while their immigration cases move through the system, we are locking up these mothers and children in detention centers instead – at tremendous taxpayer expense.

The political response to this refugee situation has been disheartening.

Instead of responding with American core values of justice and fairness, elected officials are proposing responses that completely miss the mark, calling for roll backs of important protections for children fleeing violence, demanding yet more Border Patrol and the National Guard presence along our already over-militarized border, asking for more money to be spent on family detention and seeking to deport young children and their mothers who haven’t had attorneys to help them navigate U.S. immigration law.

These proposals and actions ignore the fact that families and children are turning themselves in to border officials and asking for our help.

The government should shut down these family detention centers, particularly when effective, less expensive and more humane alternatives exist. Throwing families into a remote detention center solely for narrow political gains is shameful and puts at risk the heart and soul of this nation.

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