One year locked up with her children.
For Claudia, 33, it’s meant celebrating her daughter’s 5th birthday under the watchful eye of guards and giving up on answering her 13-year-old son’s pleas “to get us out of here.”
It’s also meant wrestling with her own fears that the family detention center in rural Pennsylvania – the only home she’s known since fleeing El Salvador – is “making me crazy.”
On Tuesday, Claudia and her two children became one of the first families to reach their one-year anniversary in detention as part of the Obama administration’s response to last year’s migration surge.
There is no indication of when she and other families like hers will be able to leave. It could be years because of a combination of administration policy moves and massive court backlog.
“I’m really hurting,” she said, talking on the phone from inside a facility in central Pennsylvania. “My daughter has nightmares. My son doesn’t understand why we can’t go. I just want to leave. I’m not sure we will.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not provide statistics on length of detentions. But interviews with lawyers and advocates who work with the mothers held in the United States report that Claudia and another woman and their children placed at the Pennsylvania center the same day are the first to spend a full year in detention under the new policy who’ve not been released.
By the end of the summer, at least 27 children, along with their mothers, are expected to also reach a year in the facility in Berks County, Pa., and ones in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas.
They were part of a wave of more than 68,000 families fleeing poverty and violence in some of the most violent parts of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – three of the most violent countries in the world. Many of the families are seeking asylum. Claudia says she fled El Salvador after she was shot at by a gang and her son was beaten up by gang members seeking information about her family.
The Obama administration responded to the surge last year by reviving its practice of family detention, adding more law enforcement at the border, speeding up court hearings for children and families, and improving coordination with Mexico and Central American countries.
In the past, families typically were not held in detention while their cases went through the court system, but that changed. The administration wanted to send a clear message back to Central America that those who come here illegally would not be able to stay.
The government expanded from having the one 100-bed facility in central Pennsylvania, adding three much larger facilities in Texas and New Mexico.
The New Mexico facility has since closed, but U.S. authorities are expanding the others. They anticipate having the capacity to house more than 3,000 mothers and children by this summer.
Late Friday, lawyers negotiating the future of the Obama administration's family detention program agreed to extend talks until June 12.
The Department of Justice is fighting to keep the three family detention centers open after a California judge concluded in a preliminary ruling that detaining mothers with their children violates a 1997 agreement on child migration.
The case has large implications on the Obama administration's increased use of family detention centers. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee previously refused the government’s request to modify the decades-old agreement, but had given the two sides until May 24 to come up with a new agreement that addressed the violations she found.
Lawyers for the mothers want the facilities closed and the detention of mothers and children banned. But administration attorneys argue they need greater flexibility to respond to unexpected surges of illegal migration.
In addition to the extension, the two sides requested seven extra days to file a joint status report with the court. That means an agreement is unlikely to be finalized until June 19.
A backlog of cases
The surge pushed an already stressed immigration court system near its brink. The backlog of cases has reached a record of more than 445,000 pending actions, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Immigration judges such as Dana Leigh Marks of San Francisco, the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, already are handling more than 3,000 cases each .
While many of these surge cases have been placed on faster court dockets, it still could take years to make it through the system because of appeals and legal continuances. Asylum cases involve some of the most complex issues facing immigration courts.
Marks likens asylum litigation to trying to complete a “thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.”
“You only complete your puzzle if you have every single piece in place,” she said. “You may know what the picture looks like. You may think you know what’s going on with the missing piece. But from a legal point of view that case can’t be granted unless every piece is in place.”
Claudia, the woman held for a year in Pennsylvania, already has lost one asylum ruling. Her lawyer is appealing to a higher court, which will take at least several more months. McClatchy isn’t sharing her last name because of concerns she and her lawyer have about reprisals from gangs in El Salvador should she be deported.
Feds: Long detention not about deterrence
The government has acknowledged long detentions as a problem. Last week, federal officials responded to political and public scrutiny and announced a series of changes to improve conditions for the women. Among them are conducting regular reviews every 60 to 90 days of cases involving long detentions.
Several top officials with the Homeland Security Department, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña, addressed the long detentions in a private meeting May 14 with a group of lawyers and advocates representing the mothers. According to those familiar with the discussions, the federal officials said no one wanted children subjected to indefinite detentions, and they promised to review the longer cases.
The advocates complained that the government was issuing such high bonds that the women could not afford them. The federal officials emphasized that the long detentions were not about deterrence or sending a message back to Central America, but that they needed to ensure the detainees would show up in court. They cited Executive Office for Immigration Review statistics that showed 40 percent of migrants released last year did not show up for future court dates. Those who have lost appeals are considered even less likely to show up for future court dates.
The government is “between a rock and hard place,” said Dan Cadman, a former veteran immigration official who is now a research fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies.
“On the one hand, no one likes to see kids and families in detention,” he said. “On the other hand, they have to find some way to try to enforce respect for the courts and the law.”
On Thursday, Democratic leaders called on the Obama administration to stop “jailing” mothers and children. Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the ranking member of the Judiciary subcommittee, said it was embarrassing how the United States was treating those seeking asylum.
“I’ll tell you, the Jordanians are treating refugees from Syria a heck of a lot better than we’re treating the refugees from Honduras,” Lofgren said.
In Pennsylvania, Claudia says she’s not sure how much more time in detention she can take. Her daughter has nightmares, she said, but is not allowed to sleep with her for comfort. Her son has been acting out but won’t talk to a psychologist. He just cries, she says.
“They wanted me to punish him,” she said. “But I said, ‘No. He’s doing this because he’s in here.’”