WASHINGTON ― She lost her first child while pregnant in her native Haiti when armed men raped and beat her for speaking out against the country’s human rights abuses.
She thought she would find safety in Santiago, Chile, where she fled to join her husband. But their second child barely survived after she was forced to give birth to him on a city street when hospital workers denied her medical care because she is Haitian.
The racism and violence sent them fleeing to the United States, but they’re still not safe. The couple is fighting deportation from inside a Pennsylvania detention center, and now a judge’s ruling and the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration approach is forcing the couple and dozens of other immigrants to make a cruel choice.
A federal judge has ordered the release of immigrant children in the nation’s three family detention centers by Friday because of the coronavirus outbreak and possible violations of public health practices at the facilities. But immigration officials aren’t expected to allow their parents to leave with them.
So the parents must decide: abandon their asylum claims and face imminent deportation with their children to countries where their lives are in danger or allow their children to be released to a sponsor or relative here and risk separation if the parents are later deported.
“The thought of being separated from my child is literally killing me,” the woman said, her voice shaking with emotion on a phone call from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Berks County Family Residential Center this week. She asked that her name be withheld out of concern for her safety.
Immigrant rights advocates and lawyers who initially rejoiced when the federal judge’s ruling came down last month are trying to figure out what will happen Friday for parents still waging legal battles against deportation.
“There is no real option for them that they could choose that would be a safe choice for their children — none,” said Bridget Cambria, director of ALDEA — The People’s Justice Center and part of a coalition working to ensure families are released and kept united.
ICE officials on Tuesday declined to comment, citing pending litigation over the release of families in detention.
Federal officials and immigrant rights lawyers have been locked in legal battles over the fate of immigrants and their children since the pandemic began to tear across the world in March. As the Trump administration shut down borders and restricted foreign travelers, it moved slowly to release people from detention centers and close immigration courts, sparking concerns the centers and courtrooms were petri dishes for infection.
On June 26, US District Judge Dolly M. Gee of California ordered federal officials to remove all of the children from the three family detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania with “all deliberate speed.” She pointed to findings from an independent monitor and a Stanford University pediatrics professor who examined conditions at the family detention centers and observed “non-compliance or spotty compliance with masking and social distancing rules.”
At the time of her ruling, 11 people detained at the facility in Karnes County, Texas, and four employees at another family detention center in the nearby city of Dilley had tested positive for COVID-19. Although no cases had been reported at Berks, Gee wrote, six children had been infected in April with viral stomatitis, an inflation of the mouth, “further demonstrating the ease with which contagion can spread in congregate settings.”
The family detention centers “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures,” she said, giving immigration officials until Friday to release the children.
On Monday, immigrant rights lawyers in a separate Washington, D.C., case asked a federal judge to order the release of all parents in the family detention centers. In all, at the time, there were more than 300 adults and children who remained locked up, including a third who are under 10 years old.
A complaint filed by Proyecto Dilley, the People’s Justice Center, RAICES, and other immigration legal groups over the weekend detailed medical care that has “been substandard at best, and negligent at worst.” And the lawyers cited concerns parents would be separated from their children. Families had already been locked up for more than 180 days, though none had criminal charges.
Vanessa Molina, with the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation, on Monday advised the judge against the “wholesale release” of detainees, saying government officials have met all court orders and are following federal public health guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A ruling is not expected until early next week.
In Pennsylvania, activists have called on Governor Tom Wolf to close the Berks detention center, where 16 people remained as of Monday and more arrived on Wednesday.
The Haitian couple entered the United States in March at the Mexican border and turned themselves in to Border Patrol officials. But a federal judge denied the family the chance to plead for asylum under the Trump administration’s transit ban, which prevented thousands of migrants from applying for asylum unless they first sought and were denied refuge in another country on their route. Another federal judge this month struck down that policy.
“We are in this real stalemate because ICE has stopped using their discretion to release families who have been detained for a long time,” Cambria said. “I have a tough time understanding who gets released or when. It is very indiscriminate.”
The couple said they arrived at Berks after a six-day, cross-country journey through different detention centers, during which they had no access to lawyers or basic hygiene necessities, such as showers or toothbrushes.
Their son, who turns 2 next month, had diarrhea and vomited several times along the way, his mother said. Now they’re worried they could all contract the coronavirus while stuck in immigration limbo, the parents said.
Another immigrant father at Berks — also from Haiti — described a similar harrowing transfer with his wife and two children, ages 11 and 3. That man, a former Red Cross worker who asked that his name be withheld out of fear of retaliation from US officials, said he and his family only get to spend a few hours together a day and that the conditions are taking their toll.
They have lost weight and often struggle with frigid temperatures at the facility. His children have suffered from a virus that leaves blisters on their tongues and lips and prevents them from eating, he said. He fears the coronavirus but a possible separation even more, he said.
“I feel like extreme pain because they are asking me, they are asking us to give up our kids or [all] stay in prison,” he said on the phone from the Berks facility this week.
Immigration lawyers and activists have fought child detention for decades. A 1997 case established minimum federal standards for holding children and has been interpreted as limiting the time a child can be held in immigration detention to 20 days.
But under President Trump, federal officials have separated families at the southwestern border, sought to allow the indefinite detention of children, and narrowed the path to asylum to deter families from immigrating to the United States.
As the pandemic has allowed Trump to ramp up his immigration crackdown, the Black Lives Matter protests have cast new attention on those hardest hit by the policies: Black immigrants from Caribbean and African nations who lawyers say are often detained for longer under higher bonds. More than 140 Haitian asylum-seekers, including more than 20 children, were deported after Gee ordered all children released, lawyers said.
“One of the things that is clear is that the fight for Black lives is a universal fight,” said Guerline Jozef, cofounder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a coalition of Haitian activists and organizers in California dedicated to helping Haitian immigrants navigate life in the United States.
The former Red Cross worker fears deportation to Haiti, where he said he was attacked by a rival political group in 2015 and barely escaped alive. He had hoped to find a better life in Santiago, where he met his wife ― a neighbor with smarts and a beautiful smile — but protests against Haitian immigrants increased there, as did assaults.
The Haitian woman and her husband had been law students and activists speaking out in favor of women’s and students’ rights in their homeland. He was forced to flee to Chile first after he was shot at and beaten, he said. She continued her activism until members of a government-backed gang attacked, raped, and sodomized her, she said.
The gang killed her parents not long after.
In Santiago, her husband helped deliver her baby on the street. He tied the umbilical cord with his shoelaces and wrapped him in his jacket, as they searched for a hospital that would take them in.
“I am extremely traumatized by what happened in Haiti,” she said. “To have to experience the trauma and abuse again because of being Black in Chile and now to be put in prison where the is no hope, I feel like I am losing my mind. I cannot [go on] anymore. Please help.”