Speakers: Mistreatment, little medical care common at detention centers

By Julia Willis
Catholic News Service

VILLANOVA, Pa. (CNS) — Although the number of Central American migrants entering the U.S. has diminished recently, thousands remain incarcerated in detention centers across the country without hope for release.

After being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, families with children as young as 12 days old have been sent to facilities that house hundreds of people for long periods of time, and that lack adequate medical or psychological care.

Speakers discussed the rights of immigrants who entered the country illegally and the responsibilities of Catholics to assist them during an April 9 conference at the Villanova University School of Law in Pennsylvania.

In conjunction with Catholic Relief Services, the university brought together immigration attorneys, Catholic Charities employees, priests, professors and child migrants to discuss the situations immigrants face after entering the U.S. illegally.

Carol Anne Donahue, an immigration attorney and president of the Greater Reading Immigration Project, described ethical concerns.

"The number one ethical issue is that we are detaining these families," said Donahue. "These individuals are following our asylum laws. They are presenting themselves at the border, they are escaping tremendous violence and left with no choice but to come here, and our response is to take these mothers and children and put them in prisons. We can use lovely language, like ‘residential center’ and ‘shelter,’ but we are incarcerating children."

Donahue and other immigration attorneys noted that families apprehended at the border are funneled into one of three large detention centers — Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania; Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas; or South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

Although immigrants caught entering the country illegally were once detained briefly before finding family members or friends to sponsor their release, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in July 2014 instated a "no-release policy" that has left some people with multiple family members in the U.S. detained for as long as four years.

While the centers are equipped with medical staff, Jacquelyn Kline, a partner in the immigration law offices of Cambria & Kline, argued that the personnel who work with detained families are poorly equipped to handle their medical and psychological problems.

Kline told of a 2-year-old child who was vomiting blood for days before being taken to a nearby hospital. Before that, the staff prescribed copious amounts of water to treat her symptoms.

"Their prescription for everything is to just drink water — hot water, cold water, it does not matter. That is what is prescribed within these facilities," said Kline.

Jennifer Nagda, policy director for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, said that there also is "completely inadequate support" for mental health treatment at detention facilities and that many children who arrive severely traumatized deteriorate in custody.

Bridget Cambria, an immigration lawyer previously worked as a shelter care counselor at the Berks County Residential Center, said migrants can be further traumatized by events in detention facilities in the U.S.

Cambria said that during her time at Berks, a 40-year-old staff member had a sexual relationship with a 19-year-old resident in "an institutional case of sexual assault." Although many residents were aware of the situation, none spoke up until a child wandered into a bathroom and witnessed a sexual act.

"The reason that our clients did not tell us this was happening was because residents were told that anyone who knew anything about it would be immediately deported," Kline said. "In many situations, facility staff use fear tactics as a way to control the migrants."

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