More than 50 people showed up to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in San Antonio at 8940 Fourwinds Dr. Tuesday afternoon to protest the thousands of immigrant women and children being held in the Karnes and Dilly detention centers, where families can be detained for months on end or even close to a year.
Currently, the daily census for the two facilities in Texas is around 2,200 detainees, according to the Interfaith Welcome Coalition.
An August report released by UNICEF states that almost 26,000 unaccompanied children, mostly hailing from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were apprehended at the U.S. border along with an additional 29,700 people in the first six months of 2016. Most individuals were traveling as families, specifically mothers and young children.
During the Tuesday rally, individuals continuously chanted "let our babies go," and attempted to deliver oversized baby cards, baby shower balloons, pairs of socks, and diapers to the ICE office, a symbolic move aimed to represent the countless children held in detention.
When ICE office staff came outside, protestors requested to speak with ICE Regional Directors. Security officers said "we'll see what we can do," but nobody came outside. Rally attendees decided to walk across the front lawn of the building and placed all their cards and symbolic objects on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) office entrance sign.
Speakers at the rally included Rev. Marisol Caballero of the Texas UU Justice Ministry, Paul Pfeiffer of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, Sr. Sharon Altendorf from COPS/Metro, and Jonathan Ryan, an immigration attorney and executive director of RAICES, a nonprofit charity that provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees. The speakers represent a coalition of faith and community leaders who are working together with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) to coordinate events around the country calling for an end to family detention.
The protest comes on the heels of the recent Aug. 18 announcement made by the U.S. Department of Justice, which stated that it will begin phasing out the use of private, for-profit prisons. Many hoped that that would include the immigration detention system, but those hopes were unfounded. Ryan said that pressure from the public and the media prompted the the DHS to announce plans to review the practice of using private immigration detention facilities.
"Their deadline to (come to a decision) is at the end of November," Ryan said. "But really, this is a feeble attempt by the DHS to kick the can down the road and alleviate the pressure it's under now."
Caballero opened the event with a prayer and asked everyone to imagine the children in detention centers who do not have the luxury of leaving every morning to go to school, playing outside, or going to the park because they are incarcerated.
Caballero asked the audience to answer the question: "What would move a mother to go on such a perilous journey with a small child, or carrying a child through pregnancy?" She added that these people are incarcerated for the crime of risking everything for the love of their children, so they can have a better life.
Ryan turned to several children who attended the rally and reminded them that children just like them are "locked up just an hour away from here" in the Texas detention facilities.
"It's even more meaningful for me today to see that we are joined by young people who are here to share their presence and lend their voice to this movement," he said. "I don't want you to grow up in a country where you think that it's okay for adults to put children in prison. I apologize to you."
When the Rivard Report asked Ryan what the alternative to the United States getting rid of these detention facilities would be, he answered that the core solution lies in case management. According to him, people fleeing violence and persecution want to follow the adequate process for asylum, but it is deliberately made difficult and complicated for them.
"We need to stop paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year to intern peaceful, vulnerable asylum seekers who don't need to be imprisoned in the first place and for whom we don't need to be paying a dime of services," Ryan said. "To say that the deck is stacked against these people is an understatement."
Altendorf and Ryan both claimed that "a majority, or close to all" of the women and children in the detention centers have family members in the U.S. who can pay for their housing, food, and help get them to court to go through the necessary asylum process – a humane option compared to them being in detention centers.
"These families (are being) separated and their human rights violated," Pfeiffer said, as he told several harrowing stories of families who got separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pfeiffer and Altendorf added that many women at the detention centers suffer from depression and some children wet the bed every night because they are in the centers for such a long time. Many detainees are taxed with mental health issues or need therapy due to abuse they suffered in their home countries, such as rape, domestic abuse, stabbings, and gang violence.
In closing, Altendorf quoted Pope Francis, and reminded everyone of the importance of "putting into practice the commandment of love" by lending refugees, evacuees, and victims of human trafficking a helping hand.
"We need to see these people not as threats but as refugees seeking safety," she said. "We ask our government to stop holding these women and children in these detention centers," and to stop returning these people to "the horror" they are running away from.
Top image: Benjamin, 12, places a sign that reads 'End Family Detention' at the front entrance sign as protestors carry a long string of children's socks to the front of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services building. Photo by Scott Ball.