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It’s a Family Affair


Margarita Huerta made a bad decision.

Some will argue that this mother of four made a bad decision when she decided to live illegally in the United States as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

Others will say she made a bad decision when she decided on December 14, 2007 to leave her children in her car, after running out of gas alongside a busy North Texas highway while she walked to get help. On her return, she learned that her 5-year-old daughter had tried to follow her and had darted into the heavy traffic, only to be rescued by passing Good Samaritans — who called the police.

Regardless of either decision, or more precisely because of both of them, Margarita found herself placed in the Collin County jail where she was charged with child endangerment and slapped with a criminal charge plus a detaining order by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to clear her for deportation proceedings.

This month, three months after she was first arrested, Margarita will finally be released from the detention center but won’t be seeing her children. Instead, she’ll be loaded on a transport and taken back to Mexico.

Margarita’s treatment and length of detention are not unusual – it’s how the United States treats undocumented immigrants in custody. In fact, Margarita is one of the lucky ones. She only had to be separated from her family for three months and she was only an hour away from where they lived. Too many in her shoes are not as fortunate.

In fact, the automatic detention and prolonged stays behind bars for undocumented immigrants, especially women, is a practice that makes no sense — even in the face of accusations that undocumented immigrants are flight risks.

In this high-tech age, there are proven better ways to keep tabs on nonviolent non-criminals than keeping them behind bars separated from their families.

The way the U.S. handles immigrant detentions has triggered attention from the global humanitarian community, the United Nations (U.N.) and immigrant communities and activists throughout the country who all agree there is a better way to treat a population whose only vice is being illegally in the country to work their way out of the poverty they were born into.

United Nations investigator, Jorge Bustamante, reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in early March that the United States is failing to uphold the international obligations of protecting migrants’ human rights by subjecting too many of them to “prolonged detention in substandard facilities.”

Bustamante reported that the annual U.S. detainee population has tripled in the past nine years. He called for the U.S. government to eliminate mandatory detention for certain migrants and to adopt alternative methods of monitoring, such as electronic ankle bracelets.

Unfortunately, while the government seems to feel technology is good enough to be used at the border in keeping unwanted immigrants out of the country, it’s not good enough to keep them in until they can be properly processed.

However, it’s the toll the separations take on these families that is worthy of attention.

In Margarita’s case, from the time she was initially picked up on that cool Texas morning, she has sat in the Collin County detention center — away from her four children and husband. According to her lawyer, Margarita has sunken into such a deep depression because of the separation from her children that she now is taking anti-depressants.

If ever there was a clear example of how broken our immigration system is it would have to be the excessive detention of women away from their families, and in some cases, along with their children.

Last year, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children co-authored the report “Locking up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families.

It was an analysis of how women and children were being treated at a specially designated “family” immigrant detention center in Taylor, Texas at the T. Don Hutto facility.

What the authors discovered is that when it comes to detaining families, there is no precedent for it in our country and so no guidelines specifically addressing the issues of families in detention have been established. Nor does anyone with oversight authority know how to properly respond to the women’s or children’s needs.

But one thing is certain, the prolonged separation of mothers and children doesn’t bode well for a country trying to boost its global image and instill international respect for its rule of law.

Share  Posted by Marisa Trevino at 8:38 AM | Permalink

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