Danielle McLaughlin: 'Prison purgatory for the desperate'
In Dilley, Texas, a prison built and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America houses women and children who have crossed the US-Mexico border illegally. They have experienced extreme poverty, domestic violence, gang rape, or gang extortion, often with threats of death. They have been neglected by their governments. Some come from El Salvador, the murder capital of the world. Some from Guatemala, where indigenous Mayans have been murdered en masse because of their ethnicity. Some make the perilous journey because they cannot put food on the table. Most make it because they are afraid for their families' lives.
The prison is Kafkaesque. Row upon row – upon row – of temporary trailers. Arranged in "neighbourhoods" with names like "yellow frog" and "red bird", so that a lost child who speaks no English can find her way "home" in its 22-hectare expanse. The prison is officially termed a "Family Residential Centre," but the only way out is deportation back over the border to Mexico, or a temporary release into the US, upon a positive finding of an asylum claim.
* Danielle McLaughlin: 'Fireworks over gun control'
* Danielle McLaughlin: 'The zoo is the elephant in the room'
* Danielle McLaughlin: Behind the scenes of the Republican Party
Last month the UN marked World Refugee Day. A day declared by the United Nations in 2000 to recognise the strength, courage and resilience of refugees and displaced people. Here in the US, President Barack Obama urged Americans to welcome the displaced to America, because doing so reflects this country's values and its noblest traditions as a nation.
A good friend of mine from law school has taken a number of trips to Dilley. Pushing aside the demands of her law practice and her life, she and others from CARA Pro Bono have travelled on their own (and fundraised) dime to provide legal assistance to persecuted, exhausted, confused, and desperate mothers. Mothers who, once arrested on the US side of the border, are forcibly separated from their terrified children. Mothers who, once formally detained, watch in the prison's playgrounds as their children play games of "guard versus prisoner", mimicking the line-ups the families regularly endure.
Two years ago, mothers and children were detained for up to two years while the US government decided if they had "credible fear" of returning home, and possibly a valid asylum claim. Today, because of lawsuits filed by CARA and others, this timeline has been reduced to less than a month. It is still a month filled with fear and anguish. Because imprisonment requires the mothers to hand over their parental rights to the guards. Because life in Dilley is like purgatory.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is rife these days. Brexit. Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigration. In Australia and New Zealand, debates rage over treatment and resettlement of asylum-seekers. Certainly, there are always those who seek to game the system. Or worse. But this month, of all months, it bears reflecting on the desperate circumstances that force a mother out of her home and her country. The means by which any nation with a proud history of immigration and acceptance might best meet her needs. And how to do this in a manner that reflects its highest idea of itself.
* Expat Kiwi Danielle McLaughlin, a Manhattan lawyer and American TV political commentator, is the Sunday Star-Times' correspondent in the US.
- Sunday Star Times