Texas immigration lockdowns holding some families too long

by: MEREDITH HOFFMAN, Associated Press Updated:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Afghan asylum seeker Samira Hakimi and her family members - three of them young children - have spent six months inside a Texas immigration lockdown, even though state lawmakers adjourned this week without passing legislation to circumvent federal rules on housing minors at such facilities.

The proposals that died in the legislative session would have licensed the immigrant detention facilities as childcare providers to avoid a requirement stipulating minors can be held no longer than 20 days.

Immigrant welfare advocates celebrated the failure of the bills, which they said would have caused further physical and psychological harm to children. Still, the federal government continues to hold some families long past the allotted time.

"The failure of the bill as good of news as that is doesn't seem to have done these families any good," said Cristina Parker, immigration programs coordinator for the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership.

Hakimi, her two young sons, sister-in-law and baby nephew are seeking political asylum from the Taliban. The family had operated schools in Afghanistan with a western-style curriculum, one of which the Taliban destroyed.

The delay grew so distressing for Hakimi that three weeks ago she attempted suicide, wrapping her headscarf around her neck.

"She's been very open about the fact that she was struggling with depression and that detention exacerbated it," said Amy Fischer, policy director of Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which is working on the family's release.

Denise Gilman, director of the University of Texas immigration law clinic, said the prolonged detentions are a clear violation of the law.

One bill, conceived by lobbyists for the for-profit prison company GEO Group, would have allowed the state's health department to waive minimum childcare licensing standards for GEO's 832-bed facility and a 2,400-bed one operated by another private prison company.

Republican state Rep. John Raney said his bill was not designed to prolong detention but rather "would have given Texas the ability to inspect and set safety standards for the federal immigration facilities that are already in operation." It also, he added, would have helped "keep families together" rather than separating mothers and children, as the Trump administration threatened to do earlier this year but has since reconsidered.

Raney previously told the Associated Press that a lobbyist for GEO was the "reason the legislation was created," prompting lawmakers opposing it to call it "a vendor bill."

The GEO Group - which earns $55 million annually from Karnes - issued a statement that they "support any effort to provide sufficient levels of government oversight and ensure the highest levels of care" for families.

But fellow Republican state Rep. Byron Cook, who heads the powerful Texas House State Affairs Committee, declined to hold a vote on the proposal because he said "there was a lot of anguish" about it. Pediatricians and child welfare advocates were among dozens of people in a hearing to decry the bill, claiming it indeed served to prolong detention, harming children physically and psychologically.

"This affirms the fact that the state does not have the ability to license the facilities at all," Parker said.

The U.S. government began the long-term detention of families in 2014, responding to an influx of women and children seeking asylum from record gang violence in Central America - but by the following year a federal judge ruled against holding kids in locked facilities unlicensed as childcare providers beyond 20 days. Then Texas attempted to license the facilities, but a state judge ruled they weren't fit to be licensed.

Still some families, like the Hakimis, are not being released rapidly.

"It's immensely concerning," said Amy Fischer, policy director for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, an organization that has campaigned for the Hakimis' release and works with detained immigrant families. "We don't entirely know why this is happening."

Fischer, who knows at least seven families who have been detained beyond the 20-day mark this year in Karnes, said they were "not given a reason" when the federal government denied paroles, and that they had come from a variety of countries.

Fischer, Parker and Gilman all said that at this point, even 20-day stays violated the law - because the 2015 court ruling ordered that except in times of immigration surges, three days is the maximum allowed detention for children. Currently, border crossers are at a low.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not comment on the prolonged detention of the Hakimis or other families, but said that "ICE makes determinations on a case-by-case basis considering all the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current guidelines and legal mandates."

But for the Hakimis, who have gone through their entire asylum case in Karnes and await a final decision, their incarceration remains a grueling mystery.

"One of her children is always seeing other kids being released and he keeps asking, 'why do all other kids get to leave and we have to stay?'" recounted Fischer. "Samira doesn't know what to say."