Why you should care
Those children crossing the border? They’re getting locked up.
Law professor Barbara Hines had worked on border issues and immigration for decades when she achieved one of her greatest successes: helping shut down family detention at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas.
The place was built for asylum seekers, but what Hines saw there, in 2006, stunned her: kids in jumpsuits, substandard health care and no access to education. To her, Hutto amounted to a minimum-security prison for women and children scooped up by Border Patrol. Shock turned to action, and within three years, with the help of the immigration clinic she ran at the University of Texas School of Law, the ACLU and a local law firm, family detention at Hutto came to a halt.
Last June, Hines was readying for retirement from the immigration clinic when the wave hit. An unprecedented influx of migrant women and children — 60,000 of them — many fleeing violence in Central America, arrived in the U.S., and suddenly, rather than release the women on bond, family detention was back on the table. Although one controversial New Mexico facility shut down this winter, many of the detainees were transferred to a new family detention facility located in Dilley, Texas. It’s run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the same company that ran Hutto. It is planning for space for 2,400 mothers and children, which would make it the largest detention facility in the country. Meanwhile, at another Texas facility in Karnes County this month, some mothers have conducted hunger strikes to protest the conditions.
Though Hines carried on with her December retirement, her life’s been taken over by what she calls “Round Two” of her battle to eliminate family detention. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
You’ve been working on immigration issues for 40 years. What changes have you seen during that time?
I’ve seen only a few positive changes. One was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which legalized many workers. And the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law, DACA, which allows some children to be exempt from deportation. But then there was the 1996 Crime Bill, which led to a massive increase in the detention, incarceration and deportation of immigrants. And in recent years, the climate has gotten beyond what I would have ever imagined in terms of anti-immigrant sentiment.
But I am hopeful. Today, in Texas, we are fighting for state tuition for Dreamers, who came to the U.S. as children, which would be transformative for so many students. It’s been interesting and inspiring to see the Dreamers themselves organizing as a new civil and social rights movement, taking over their own fate, coming out of the shadows.
What are you seeing in regard to detained women and children?
I’m seeing really anxious, depressed women and children. Women who have every aspect of their lives controlled; mothers who are afraid if their kids don’t behave that they’ll be taken away from them. The psychological impact on children can be tremendous. In my opinion, a person should never go into a detention center and hear a baby crying. Babies should not be in jail.
What misconception around this issue should be cleared up?
What’s lost in the debate is that these people are asylum seekers. They are fleeing desperate and dangerous situations. You don’t just pack up everything and risk your life and your baby’s life unless there’s really something wrong at home. But there’s been little debate about the root causes of the violence going on in Central America.
Last summer, we witnessed a surge in unaccompanied minors coming across the border, in addition to mothers and their children. How has that changed things?
I’ve seen very humanitarian responses: church groups, law clinics, regular people coming to help. What is heartening is that in the midst of this Round Two of family detention, maybe as a result of the Internet and social media, many more people are engaged in the struggle against detention, especially compared to when we were fighting to shut down Hutto back in 2006.
Is there a legal issue that occurs on the border that many people might not know about, but should?
The lack of in-person asylum hearings. Instead, video conferencing is used between the asylum seeker in the detention center, and the judge and the government lawyer in the courtroom. It’s done to save travel costs. Although the courts haven’t agreed, in my opinion, that raises serious due process questions — because it is so difficult to provide representation in that situation. If you stay with the judge, you can’t have any conversations with your client — and not everything is translated to the asylum seeker. On the other hand, if you stay with your client, you’ll miss out on all the cues that we as lawyers are trained to pick up from the judge and the prosecutor.