MCALLEN, TX - SEPTEMBER 08: A girl from Central America rests on thermal blankets at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, Texas. The Border Patrol opened the holding center to temporarily house the children after tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the border illegally into the United States during the spring and summer. Although the flow of underage immigrants has since slowed greatly, thousands of them are now housed in centers around the United States as immigration courts process their cases. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)2014 Getty Images
The government’s ongoing detention of Central American women and children breaks the law, advocates say, adding that they may take legal action to hasten their release.
The women and children netted in the raids held in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas in early January who received stays on their deportation may provide examples to fuel to an ongoing legal suit against the Department of Homeland Security demanding their release. At least 12 families that were granted a temporary reprieve following the Jan. 2nd raids are still held in detention centers.
“It is unconscionable that the government is holding a firm line and continuing to detain them,” said Manoj Govindiah, an attorney with RAICES, one of the legal advocacy groups providing pro-bono counsel to the women. He said that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency has the discretion to release the women but has not.
At issue is whether or not the government is complying with the Flores case, which forbids long-term detention of children and their mothers who cross the border illegally. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has blasted the ruling, saying it hampers the agency’s ability to stem illegal immigration.
Advocates say the detention of the women is flouting the ruling.
“It violates letter and spirit of the Flores case,” Govindiah said.
The 18-year-old legal agreement known as Flores was brought on behalf of an El Salvadoran girl who fled to the U.S. in the mid-1980s but was held in detention alongside adults. It establishes the first guidelines detailing the treatment of children who were detained after crossing the border.
Last year, a Federal Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the government was violating the ruling by keeping the mothers and their children in the detention centers for a significant amount of time. Many of the families had been staying in temporary shelters for as long as six months.
Advocacy groups argued that detaining families for such long periods of time violated the Flores agreement.
Since the ruling, the government has filed appeals arguing specifically that the initial agreement deals with unaccompanied minors and that, in these cases, mothers are present.
In the meantime, lawyers in Dilley are working to collect data to help get a response about the government's action and inaction in front of Judge Gee, Govindiah said.
Dominga, one of the women waiting in a detention facility in Dilley, Texas, has been waiting for word on when they will be released. Dominga fled to Atlanta from El Salvador with her two children to escape domestic and sexual abuse.
“My children understand that jail is a bad place for bad people,” she said. “I can’t explain to them why they are being treated like criminals.”
Dominga said her attorney in Atlanta told her that she has to sign a deportation order to begin her case. She signed, assuming her trials were just beginning. She didn’t know that she would wind up in Dilley, where her file and the file of the 12 other families brought in during the January raids who received stays are in legal limbo.
Because the stays of deportation were awarded after late asylum petitions were filed, their cases aren’t technically open until the Board of Immigration Appeals opens them.
“We have gone through so many hardships,” Dominga said. “I just want better for my children and I want them to know that we aren’t criminals. We are humans and we have the right to be happy and safe.”
Meanwhile, ICE press officers maintained that they couldn’t comment on the women because cases are decided on an individual basis. Instead, they passed along a statement from the homeland security secretary who maintained that the Flores decision isn’t pertinent to cases such as Dominga’s because it isn’t about an unaccompanied minor.
But, they maintain they’ve made changes.
“We have implemented significant reforms to how we operate our family residential centers to transition them to temporary processing facilities for these individuals, and have taken steps to ensure compliance with the District Court’s...orders,” Johnson's statement read.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.