Immigrant Families Face Stress of Detention

A new film, Under The Same Moon, follows a young Mexican boy who ends up in an U.S. immigration detention facility. Though his journey is fictional, his experience is a reality for many immigrants. Lorena Castro, who spent two years in a detention facility, tells her story. And Michelle Brane, a refugee rights activist, discusses the American immigration detention system.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, we're going to look at the future of jazz through the eyes of a composer and jazz radio host who wonders what will happen as fewer radio stations play the music.

But first, a new film has opened recently, playing in selected cities across the country. "La Misma Luna," or "Under the Same Moon," tells a story of Carlitos, a young boy from Mexico in search of the mother who left him behind in the care of his grandmother, as the mother worked to support the family in the U.S. When the grandmother dies, the boy decides to make his way north alone.

(Soundbite of movie "Under the Same Moon")

(Soundbite of drum beats)

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, kid. What're you doing here?

Unidentified Man #2: Why don't you come with us, all right?

Mr. ADRIAN ALONSO: (As Carlitos) I don't know. I'm with my friend.

(Soundbite of drum beats)

Unidentified Man #2: All right, kid. Come on.

Mr. ALONSO: (As Carlitos) No! No!

Unidentified Man #2: Let's go. Let's go.

Mr. ALONSO: (As Carlitos) No!

Unidentified Man #1: Stop. Let's go. Stop fighting.

(Soundbite of struggle)

(Soundbite of drum beats)

Unidentified Man #2: Relax.

Unidentified Man #3: Hey! Leave him alone!

(Soundbite of drum beats, music)

Unidentified Man #2: It's OK, kid. You're safe.

Unidentified Man #3: Hey!

(Soundbite of water splash)

Unidentified Man #2: Goddamn it!

Unidentified Man #1: Don't move! Bring him back this way.

Unidentified Man #3: Jorge! Ese, corrije!

Unidentified Man #2: Come here!

Unidentified Man #3: Jorge! Jorge!

(Soundbite of hoof beats)

Unidentified Man #2: Ah!

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: It's a harrowing tale, told with flair, but even more frightening, activists say, are the real facilities, where families who illegally cross U.S. borders are detained. There are two, one in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and the other in Taylor, Texas. The Texas facility was the focus of a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine.

Here to discuss this are Michelle Brane, director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, a detention and asylum program, and Lorena Castro, a Colombian native who was 12 when she arrived in America with her mother and two sisters. They spent two years in detention. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MICHELLE BRANE (Director, Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children): You're welcome.

Ms. LORENA CASTRO (Immigrant): Hello.

MARTIN: I want to mention that we invited a representative from the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to join our conversation. They declined, but they sent a written statement, which I'll read a little later. Michelle, I want to start with you. You've worked at two of these centers. You visited both of the centers where...

Ms. BRANE: Yes. I visited both.

MARTIN: Families are detained. If you'd just describe them, tell me why they were created and how they were created.

Ms. BRANE: Sure. It's a complicated history, but in basic terms, what used to happen is that most often, families who were apprehended having crossed the border or apprehended without documentation were either released, pending a hearing before an immigration judge, or what started to happen more and more in the late '90s and after 2001 was that they were separated.

So the children were taken to a detention facility for children, and the adults were taken to adult detention facilities, which very often were - are prisons. Advocates and others started complaining about this to Congress. Congress got a wind of it and decided that they didn't think this was an appropriate practice, because sometimes these kids, I have to point out, were very, very young.

We had children as young as six months, breast-feeding children, that were being separated from their parents and put into foster care or some other sort of care while their parents were taken to prison. So Congress put out a report in - several years in a row, actually, saying that children and families should not be separated, that they should be put into alternative programs, but that if absolutely necessary to detain them, that they should be detained in non-penal, homelike environments.

This all combined with a new initiative by ICE, which they refer to as the "end of catch and release." In 2006, ICE announced that they were opening a new facility to house families. This was the T. Don Hutto facility, that would be able to house over 500 individual family members, and that they were ending the practice of "catch and release" so that all families apprehended at the border or at entry points, and even, eventually, internally in the country, were detained either at the Hutto facility, which is the larger of the two, or at the facility in - the Berks facility in Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: And just briefly, what was the problem with "catch and release"? The concern was that people would just disappear into the community.

Ms. BRANE: Yeah, and I think that's a valid thing to take into consideration. A lot of people, when just released and told, you know, show up on this date for a hearing, a lot of people were not appearing for those hearings.

MARTIN: I want to read this statement now from the - from ICE, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As I mentioned earlier, we invited them to join our conversation. They said that they were unavailable, but this is the statement that they sent.

They said, "The T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, is one of the major reasons the Department of Homeland Security has been able to successfully end the catch and release of illegal aliens at the southern border. ICE also operates the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. These facilities are an effective and humane alternative to maintain the unity of alien families as they await the outcome of their immigration hearings or return to their home countries."

Ms. BRANE: Well, I have a couple of things to say about that. I'm going to think, yes, it was an end of "catch and release." There's no question that it effectively ended that process. That was its main intent, and there are alternatives to traditional, strict, prison-type detention. There are all sorts of programs out there, pre-hearing release programs. Some of them involve electronic bracelets. Some of them involve checking in, that you know, can ensure that people show up for their hearings. And those models are out there, and they have nine - appearance rates for people showing up in the 90s.

MARTIN: And just briefly, again, who makes up the population in these facilities? And what percentage are children?

Ms. BRANE: Well, I don't have any actual statistics, but based on our visits and conversations with ICE, at least half of them are children, because nobody's in any of these facilities without a child, and for the most part, it's single parents that come across. So, over 50 percent, and they are from all over the world. Majority, probably, from Central or South America, but really, Iraqis, Iranians, Jordanians, people from Africa, from all over the world.

MARTIN: Now, Lorena, you were 12 when you came here with your family, as I understand it. You're 15 now and you're seeking asylum in Toronto. Your family was held at Berks. Can I just ask you, why did your family want to come to the U.S.?

Ms. CASTRO: The thing was that in Colombia, we didn't have the economy to, like, you know, my mom to support us, and she's a single mother, so she decided to go to United States to be better and to give us a better future. Better opportunities there, so yeah, and for my grandmother, too, because we haven't see her like for about seven years. So we decided to go to United States for those two reasons, for better future and for my grandmother.

MARTIN: Lorena, I think people would like to know why your family came here, and you did make a claim for asylum. To the degree that you can, I know you were young at the time, can you tell us anything about why?

Ms. CASTRO: Well, I think those - I don't know. I don't know. What can I say?

MARTIN: Michelle, perhaps you could help us here, because you worked on Lorena's case. Can you...

Ms. BRANE: Yeah, I...

MARTIN: Help us a little bit, without compromising too many details of the family's privacy?

Ms. BRANE: Sure. Lorena's mother has filed a claim of - for asylum, based on domestic violence in her home country of Colombia.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More and we're talking with Michelle Brane, the director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and Lorena Castro. She's a Colombian native who was 12 when she was placed in a detention center for two years. We're talking about detention centers that house immigrants and their children while they await asylum in the U.S. What do you remember about the Berks Family Shelter?

Ms. CASTRO: I remember the good stuff and the bad stuff, like the punishments that they did to me and to the other kids.

MARTIN: Like what?

Ms. CASTRO: For almost everything. For talking to males, and the thing was that it was this guy, and he was 17 years old and at that time I was, like, 14 years old and then we start to talk and everything and we always talk and - but the staff, that was a wrong thing. They thought that we were boyfriend and girlfriend or something like that, right?

MARTIN: So they wanted to discourage you from talking to a boy?

Ms. CASTRO: And then - yeah.

MARTIN: Or a young man.

Ms. CASTRO: Yeah. And then - and that's not allowed there. You're not to have a boyfriend or to send letters to anyone. No, that's not allowed. So we never do nothing like that and we - and then they punish us like for two weeks without talking to each other, so we couldn't talk. And then after that, well, I remember that the third week, we started talking again.

And then they were very serious when they said, if you guys keep talking, we're going to suit you guys in the hall for two days. And then you, Lorena, not going to be able to talk to nobody except, like, your mom and your two sisters. And they told that next time they see us talking that we were going to be another detention for young people like, you know, for teenagers...

MARTIN: A juvenile detention facility.

Ms. CASTRO: Yeah, a juvenile detention, yeah. And also...

MARTIN: And it's also my understanding that they told you you couldn't speak to anybody outside of your family...

Ms. CASTRO: To anybody, to anybody.

MARTIN: For a month. Was that correct?

Ms. CASTRO: For a month. Yeah, that's right.

MARTIN: Michelle, what do you have to say about that?

Ms. BRANE: Well, you know, this is a good example of the problems that came up with discipline. When we visited the facilities, we asked what the disciplinary procedures were, because it's one of the most obvious, kind of, conflicting issues that's going to happen when you have families detained. And the official position of the government was that parents discipline their own children and they don't get involved. And they had said that they had no guidelines for how children would be disciplined because it was irrelevant, only parents would be disciplining the children. But as you can see, that's not really the case and, you know, it seems pretty intuitive that sometimes in a situation like that, you're going to have situations where the parents aren't able or aren't willing to do what the guards might want.

MARTIN: Michelle, why is it that advocates like yourself have been concerned about the conditions at these facilities? Why have people been so concerned about the children who are kept there? Obviously, the original intention was to keep kids with their families, so what's the problem?

Ms. BRANE: Right. Well, I mean, obviously, as you say, we were concerned about the separation of families, so the idea that they're not separating families anymore could, at first glance, be seen as an improvement. But as I said, Congress indicated that these families should be released, when possible, and only when necessary detained, and then in non-penal, home-like environments. So, when we initially set out to look at these facilities, we just wanted to see what they were like. We know that ICE facilities, in general, are not nice places. There's a lot of issues around conditions generally. So we wanted to visit them. And I have to say that we were pretty surprised by the conditions, particularly at the Hutto Center in Texas, although, and that's what's gotten a lot of the attention because originally it was much harsher than where Lorena was held. But I think a lot of the disciplinary and kind of structural problems remain. I mean, there's no...

MARTIN: Well, what were the conditions?

Ms. BRANE: The conditions were very prison-like. Hutto is a former prison. It's a former medium security prison. They had not been really amended since the original building of the facility, so it was - you were sleeping in a prison cell with your children. There were uniformed guards. It was quite restrictive, and, I think, what we really found there was a breakdown of family structure and a lot of depression.

MARTIN: Was there any schooling available?

Ms. BRANE: Well, quite surprisingly, when we first visited in December of 2006, children received one hour of education a day and that hour of education, I would say, was grossly inappropriate.

MARTIN: What about playing? I mean, some of these are very small children. Do they have any room to run around? To blow off steam? Were there any toys?

Ms. BRANE: There is a playground...

MARTIN: Crayons?

Ms. BRANE: At the Hutto facility, but when we were there we were told by the children that many of the children had never seen the playground or had never been on the playground. They could only see it from, you know, one of the little windows in the recreation room. They had one hour of recreation a day.

MARTIN: So they were expected to stay in a cell all day with their parents?

Ms. BRANE: Well, there's a pod system at Hutto, so the way it works is that there's cells surrounding a common area. So, during certain times of the day they had to be in their cell for counts and, you know, during certain hours of the night, and then otherwise they were in this common area. They had a couple sofas, plastic sofas made of a special material that I think they use commonly in prisons, and then a couple of televisions. There were no toys in that common area at the time that we visited.

MARTIN: One of the points that the New Yorker made is that the way you run a prison for adults is very different from the way you manage a facility involving children, and that sometimes the people running these facilities didn't understand that. For example, these headcounts, which of course is a standard procedure in a prison, that sometimes young children can't stand still that long and that there were reports of, you know, kids who weren't even allowed to go to the bathroom while these headcounts were taking place. Was that still going on when you visited?

Ms. BRANE: Well, when I visited, all of that was happening. After our visit and after we issued our report and a lot of this became public, there were some immediate changes that were made. And then eventually, the ACLU and the University of Texas filed a lawsuit against ICE regarding the Hutto facility, in particular. And since that time a lot of changes have occurred. So I don't want to give the impression that those conditions that I just described still exist because it is much better now. But I think, again, the question still remains, are we a country that wants to detain families? There's no good model for detaining families.

MARTIN: Now, Lorena, I wanted to ask you, what did you do all day as a 12-year-old? Did you go to school? What did you do?

Ms. CASTRO: I was so bored. Yeah. Yeah. During the week we always had to go to school. The school was inside the shelter. And then we went to lunch and we were playing some games and we went in the TV room or something like that, and then we watched TV. And then, like, at three we have to go back to school and then come back again. Yeah. That was the routine every day.

MARTIN: Is that so bad? Is that really so bad?

Ms. CASTRO: Well, yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. CASTRO: Because...

MARTIN: I mean, because kids have to go to school all day. That's what they got to do.

Ms. CASTRO: Yeah, I know. I know, yeah, but sometimes it was so frustrating because even the teachers sometimes get on you, you know, like they start not liking you because you're getting with - I was one of the, like the baddest girl for them because I never let them talk to me, like bad or shouting at me, never.

MARTIN: Lorena, I want to ask you a hard question, but you're a big girl now and I just want to hear what you have to say about this is, there are people who say you can't expect too much if you're here illegally. That sometimes you have to go through something like this if you're going to cross illegally. If someone were to have that point of view, what would you say?

Ms. CASTRO: Well, I think that's a good and a bad thing. A good thing because, yeah, they should keep you somewhere that you're safe and you're sheltered, right? But not like that. You should be free to go out, you know, and if you cross the country illegally it's because of some reason, you know, because the United States government don't like immigrants to pass because they think they're going to do something bad to the country, right? And the only they're trying to do is, like, get a work, try to support their family, try to get better futures for their kids and everything, and that's what the United States government don't see about that. They only see the bad way of us and I think that's why they keep us in jail, could say, or in these kind of shelters of immigration, to, like, I don't know. Maybe to teach us a lesson not to cross a country, like, illegally, or just to punish us. I don't know. I just don't get it.

MARTIN: Why should people care about this who are generally skeptical of immigration right now? As you understand, it's a very volatile issue in the country and a lot of people say, you know what? These parents put these kids in this situation by bringing them here illegally. To people who feel that way, what would you say?

Ms. BRANE: A couple things. I mean, our - a lot of it has to do with the conditions. I think we do not argue the point that we need to have some system for keeping tabs on people and ensuring that they appear for hearings, but there are humane ways of doing it. And, I will say, much more cost-effective way. This is a very expensive way of ensuring that people appear for their hearings.

MARTIN: Lorena, finally, how are you doing now?

Ms. CASTRO: I'm doing very well. Very, very well.

MARTIN: And you live in Toronto.

Ms. CASTRO: Thank you. Yeah, I'm living in Toronto. I'm still going to school and everything.

MARTIN: And how are you and your mom and your sisters?

Ms. CASTRO: Well, they're very good. My sisters are, you know, in the same school and my mom is, well, she's good.

MARTIN: I'm happy to hear it. Lorena Castro is a native of Columbia. She's currently seeking asylum with her family in Toronto, Canada. She was held for - she, along with her family, were held for two years at a facility in Berks, Pennsylvania. Michelle Brane is Director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. It's a detention and asylum advocacy program. She was kind enough to join me here in our studios in Washington. I want to say, again, that we asked the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency to join our conversation. They declined but they issued a written statement and we'll post it on our web site. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BRANE: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. CASTRO: Thank you for listening to us. COST: $00.00

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