Obama’s Legacy: Locking up moms and kids?

by Suzy Subways

What happens to refugee women and children from Central America who come to the United States seeking asylum? They get locked up. About an hour’s drive from Philly at the Berks Family Detention Center, dozens of immigrant women who escaped violence in their home countries are imprisoned with their children. And it wasn’t Trump who started this. President George W. Bush did, and these family detention jails were dramatically expanded by President Obama. 

“Mommy, I’m scared.”

Some of the youngest detainees at Berks have spent half their lives in detention centers, attorneys told NBC 10 last month. In September, 22 families went on hunger strike for 16 days to demand their freedom.

“We risked our own lives and those of our children so we could arrive on safe ground,” the mothers wrote in a letter. “While here, our children have told us they sometimes consider suicide, made desperate from confinement. The teenagers say that being here, life makes no sense.”

One mother, released after the strike, told Democracy Now about the prison-like conditions: “I could not sleep at all. Every night when you would go to sleep, every five minutes, every 10 minutes, the door would open. Someone would come in and flash the light at you, at your face. And then my daughter, she would, of course, sleep on the other bed…she was afraid, and she would get up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Mommy, mommy, I’m scared.’ And she would slip into bed with me. And they would come, the officers would come, in the middle of the night and shine their light at me. And they would look at me and say, ‘She’s not supposed to be here. Get her off, and get her into her own bed.’” 

A trail of violence backed by the Democrats

Many of the families come from Honduras, where a military coup overthrew the democratically elected president in 2009. Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time, supported the coup. Since then, Honduras has become a primary transit and storage point for drug trafficking. And it’s also become one of the world’s most dangerous places for women. Sexual violence and murders of women and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people are largely ignored by the police. Corruption and police violence there grow, as the U.S. government sends money to fight the drug war.

There are now three detention centers for families in the United States, holding nearly 3,000 people. The other two are in Texas. It’s expected that President Trump will lock up many more women and children asylum seekers.

Here in Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has the power to shut down Berks Family Detention Center. But Wolf has only made half-hearted objections to locking up some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Attorney Matthew Archambeault asked, in an interview with NBC 10 last month, “Does Wolf want to be part of [President Donald Trump’s] machine?” Wolf’s answer has been inaction, which is as good as a “Yes.”

Resistance, inside and out

In February 2016, dozens of community members protested outside Berks. Activists Erika Almirón of Juntos and Sundrop Carter of Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition were arrested for hugging some of the women and children detained there.

Attorney Lindsay Harris wrote of her visit last February, “A band of toddlers followed us from room to room. The children, ranging in age from 1 to 4 years old, wore signs written in colored pens and taped on their fronts and backs…. No photography is allowed on tours of the detention center, but the image of a band of eight toddlers, all holding hands, standing in a line and blocking our path, will forever be etched in my memory. ‘Nos tratan mal’ (They treat us badly), said the sign on the chest of a little boy, and ‘Libertad por favor’ (Freedom, please), said the sign on the back of the little girl next to him.”

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