The following post was written by Melanie Poeling, a participant in UUCSJ’s RAICES volunteer program.
Imagine that you are a mother with small children and you have traveled over a thousand miles from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador because of extreme violence against you and your family, only to be detained after requesting asylum at the U.S. Port-of-entry. You imagine being safe and free in the U.S.; instead you are imprisoned indefinitely in a family detention center with your children anywhere from weeks to almost a year. When you finally get out, you are released at a bus station in a strange city in the middle of the night with little money, no clothes, and not even a change of diapers for your baby. This is the reality for many families from Central America fleeing violence.
Volunteering through the UU College of Social Justice and RAICES allowed me to see firsthand the mental, physical, and emotional toll that mandatory detention has on refugee families. I saw children famished due to inadequate food in the centers, not eating and losing weight. I saw mothers and children who were very ill but feared seeking help because the medical unit at the Karnes detention center was being used for solitary confinement and punishment for mothers that protested.
The stories I heard from refugee mothers were heartbreaking, but their strength, love, and determination outweighed the pain. We heard stories of women witnessing their children being murdered in front of them; stories of years of domestic violence; stories of sex trafficking and the kidnapping of teenage girls; stories about extortion and extreme gang violence. And then, once in the U.S., indeterminate detention in family detention centers. These families are refugees. How can we not see this as a humanitarian crisis?
Witnessing all of this firsthand deeply impacted me as a Unitarian Universalist and as a mother. As a UU, I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. In the detention centers, women and children are stripped of all dignity and treated as worthless. Profits are valued over people. As a mother, I am deeply disturbed that as a nation, we are detaining infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers with their mothers in detention centers that are no better than a prison.
I am so glad that through our work with the UU College of Social Justice and RAICES we were able to provide information, assist with court preparations, provide temporary housing and transportation, and support these mothers in their fight for the safety and well-being of their families.
As a UU, I am called to action to end the detention of mothers and children. This is a humanitarian crisis and family detention centers are not the answer. They should be immediately shut down.