Saving Our Sisters: The Fight to End the Detention & Deportation of Central American Refugees
This is a story about a woman fleeing the pain and terror of sexual violence in Honduras only to face the indignity and inhumanity of prison profiteering in the United States.
Laura* is a citizen of Honduras. She built a happy life in her hometown and is a mother to four children. Life was humble, but happy. Then as the war on drugs escalated, the narcotraffickers increased their use of violence to intimidate and control the communities.** The drug gangs prowled the towns and intimidated the locals. One narcotrafficker eventually brutally raped Laura. After the assault, he continued to seek her out and that is when Laura realized that her life in Honduras would never be safe again.
Laura doesn’t need to see statistics or UN Reports to confirm that life as a woman in Honduras involves constant risk. Femicide and crimes of sexual violence have steadily risen within the past decade–Honduras is consistently classified as one of the most dangerous places for women. When it comes to the government addressing these crimes, the impunity rates top 95%. An individual facing constant threat of violence is left with little options if she wants to live.
Facing fear of future assaults, Laura decided to journey to the United States. A dangerous experience for anyone, but especially perilous for a woman traveling with her two-year-old son. By the time she and her son, Wilmer, reached Mexico, Laura felt completely alone. She had no money, no food, no place to sleep, “I was there with nothing and no one.”
As her hope diminished, a woman approached Laura, from seemingly nowhere, and gave her refuge; allowing Laura a small bit of respite. In total, it took her about three weeks to travel through Mexico begging for rides and food along the way.
Finally, after weeks of hard, dangerous travel filled with fear and desperation, she reached the U.S. border where Immigration Officers promptly detained her. CBP placed her in their holding stations located in McAllen, Texas. Laura and her son first experienced the Hielera; a holding station so cold the detained refer to it as an icebox. People slept on concrete floors and the rooms were bursting to capacity. “There were about 25 to 30 people, maybe more,” recalls Laura. “Sometimes we could lay down, but not often.” As soon as one person left, a new one would take their place. Laura spent much of her time protecting her son and trying to assure him that they would eventually be released. Laura is unable to recall the total amount of days spent in the Hielera as she had no way to tell time–her holding room had no windows; she could never tell if it was night or day. After some time passed, CPB transferred her and Wilmer to the Perrera, a holding station that earned its name because of its resemblance to a dog kennel. Laura preferred the Perrera because at least there she had an aluminum blanket.
Aside from the horrible conditions, Laura also endured racists taunts from guards that made no secret of their disgust for those detained. She felt discouraged when an immigration officer in charge of her case urged her to agree to return to Honduras.
Immigration is an administrative relief where there is no right to an appointed attorney. Indigent clients, as well as young children, are expected to pay for their own counsel or represent themselves in complex and high-stakes hearings. The need for legal representation is overwhelming. Many immigrants who are unable to find legal representation are returned to their home country. Without an attorney there is no safety net to ensure due process is protected and enforced in these proceedings. The difference between having a legal representative and going in pro se can quite literally be life or death.
In Laura’s case, she found an attorney through RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). RAICES is a Texas-based immigration legal services non-profit with offices throughout the state. Since 2014, RAICES has helped to coordinate the Karnes Pro Bono Project, which began in response to the federal government’s decision to renew the practice of detaining mothers and children who recently arrived at the border. Immigrant family detention existed in the mid 2000s until the Obama administration ended the practice in 2009. However, with the perceived “surge” in migration in 2014 of primarily Central American youth and families fleeing violence, the administration again began to detain mothers and children seemingly to send a message of deterrence to other immigrants.***
Laura is one of the “fortunate” ones. She overcame horrific violence in her home country and survived a perilous journey from Central America to the U.S. only to then be confined and treated like an animal. While facing the threat of being returned to Honduras, she found legal representation that made the difference in her ability to plead her case to the Immigration Judge. Not all are as fortunate.
Learning about Laura and cases similar to hers, while disheartening, should also open our eyes to the injustices women consistently face. The women fleeing from Central America aren’t just running away from stray bullets shot by narcotraffickers (though that should be reason enough to seek safety), instead they are fleeing from threat of femicide, rape, and domestic violence. Crimes committed against them solely because of their bodies. We are supposed to be a nation that protects and defends the most downtrodden, yet, when women and children seek protection from egregiously violent and repugnant crimes our response has been to place them in holding cells while we force them to prove their victimhood to our satisfaction. The government admits that this is done as an attempt to deter other women from seeking help. Imagine if your local police department said they treat all victims of reported sex crimes as horribly as possible so as to deter other victims from filing reports. Communities wouldn’t stand for that. We shouldn’t either.
When mothers fleeing rape and other forms of gendered violence are detained and treated like criminals, it should make us angry. But beyond anger, it should drive us into action. What can we do to stop these violations? To support these families? To ensure some form of justice occurs?
One. As attorneys and law students we are equipped with special skills that can make the difference in these immigrants’ lives. The most directly impactful form of help is to volunteer. Through the Karnes Pro Bono Project, RAICES helps coordinate volunteer legal services for the children and mothers detained at the Karnes detention center. The project is always in need of volunteers at the detention center, located an hour southeast of San Antonio, Texas. There are also opportunities to volunteer remotely for those who cannot make the trip. It bears repeating: you can volunteer remotely! You know how law school is draining and your day-to-day work isn’t always how you envisioned using your law degree? Here is that chance to reinvigorate your passion and to help ensure that justice has a chance to prevail.
Two. It should go without saying, but you have to vote. Register to vote. And register your friends and family to vote. Local, State, and Federal–all of it matters and there are immigration implications in all those different levels of elections.
Three. Determine what you can do locally. If volunteering remotely isn’t an option, figure out what you can do with your local Latino Bar. What is your group doing? What can they do? Are unaccompanied minors coming to your city? Is there a need for pro bono attorneys by your local legal aid? There is always some need for help and sometimes it’s just a matter of spearheading the movement.
This post is a call to action. It is a plea from your sisters in Law, fellow Latina lawyers, who are doing the work and imploring for all of us to act because they know first-hand what difference you can make. Today’s post is also a stark reminder that our community continues to be ignored by those in power and that we continue to be treated as less than human. We cannot abide by that; instead, let us advocate, let us vote, let us act, and fight for real justice.
Special thanks to Andrea Meza, Equal Justice Works Fellow at RAICES for her original idea and contributions to this piece as well as for the advocacy to give Laura, and all the Lauras currently detained, a voice and a chance.
All opinions & commentary are my own & not endorsed by any agency or person discussed or linked to in this piece.
* Names have been changed.
*Narcotraffickers traffic drugs to the U.S. because we continue to consume those drugs and demand more; our hands are not clean when it comes to the creation of the problems in Central America.
Thank you so much for this post!! Truly incredible!!!
I am headed back to NY next week, after working in Santa Fe, NM with immigration issues and making art regarding these super important issues!!
When I get back, I am volunteering to help for sure!!
Have a great day!
Thank you for reading! Your art is so inspiring too (I love seeing the journey of your residency)!