With critics increasingly calling for the Obama administration to end immigrant family detention, members of Congress held a Capitol Hill forum Tuesday to hear from experts, former detainees and a former detention center employee.
At the forum, hosted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee, speakers described alarming conditions at all three of the country's immigrant family detention centers, in Leesport, Pa., and Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.
Gladys Checas, 21, a former detainee from Honduras, said she was repeatedly turned away when she sought medical treatment for her 3-year-old daughter, Catherine, after the girl started vomiting blood at the Leesport center, where they were held for 11 months.
"They said it was normal and said she should be put to bed and drink lots of water," Checas said. Her daughter was treated later, after Checas' attorney helped persuade officials to take them to a hospital, she said.
Sonia Hernández, 33, a Salvadoran mother who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas illegally with her three children -- ages 11, 9 and 3 -- was held at the Karnes facility for more than 10 months. There, she said, she saw women suffer miscarriages, children threaten suicide and mothers slit their wrists. (Homeland Security officials dispute allegations of miscarriages and suicide attempts at Karnes.)
"The only thing I ask is for these detention centers to be closed," Hernández said through an interpreter, adding, "There must be a better way to deal with these cases."
The Obama administration has expanded immigrant family detention this year in response to an influx of thousands of families on the southern border starting last summer, most of them from Central America. While the surge has waned, immigrants continue to cross into the U.S. illegally, and Homeland Security has responded by increasing capacity from one 95-bed family detention center in Pennsylvania to three facilities, which by year's end will have 3,700 beds.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials defend the detention centers as humane and family-oriented, saying they're equipped with clinics, schools and other necessary services.
Opponents says the family detention centers are punitive, prison-like places that lack medical care and schooling and are unsafe and unsanitary.
Hernández said that during her time at Karnes, "The immigration officers would come to our cells and say, 'Just sign this; your case is lost. Just sign this and go back to your country.'"
Immigrant mothers and children are not provided attorneys in court.
"I would always ask immigration, 'Why can't you just give us a chance, an opportunity?' They would say, 'These are laws; you don't understand,'" she said. "I would tell them over and over again, 'The fact that we came here crossing the mountains and the countryside doesn't mean we're animals. We have feelings like anyone else and we want to be free." She started to cry.
Her 3-year-old still asks, "Mommy, are we going back to Room 108?"
"I can't erase this from their memories," Hernández said, noting she crossed the border illegally because she was fleeing violence in El Salvador.
"I had to choose between this and waiting in my country to be killed with my children. I don't think I'm a bad person," she said.
She sat beside former Karnes social worker Olivia López, who spoke and submitted a 19-page declaration about alleged abuses there, including inhumane and inadequate medical and mental healthcare.
López said a toddler had to be taken to the medical department four times with severe abdominal pain before he was hospitalized for an appendectomy.
Another infant had to be flown to a hospital by helicopter for emergency surgery for cranial bleeding after his mother was repeatedly rebuffed when she pleaded for care, López said.
"Not only are these conditions frightening, they are abusive," she said, insisting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were aware of how the detention centers are operated by private contractors.
"Those who have harmed children need to be held to account," López said.
Among lawmakers in attendance Tuesday were Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, Judy Chu of El Monte and Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles -- all outspoken critics of family detention who described visiting the facilities in Texas earlier this summer and speaking with mothers and children there.
For the Record
July 30, 7:58 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Lucille Roybal-Allard as Louise.
Lofgren called the detention centers "internment camps," worse than Syrian refugee camps she visited in Jordan earlier this year.
"These facilities are in a remote location for a reason," she said. "The press is not able to see what's going on; the public has no idea."
The Los Angeles Times has been granted limited access to the detention center at Dilley, but not to Karnes, and has not been allowed to take photographs inside either facility.
Lofgren said although not all immigrants who seek asylum should be allowed to stay, "locking up women and children in a jail is not what America is all about."
The Obama administration has defended family detention, with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announcing the expedited release of some mothers last month and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials promising improvements including more oversight and case reviews.
Last week, opponents of family detention scored a major victory when a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the administration to show why the government should not be found in violation of conditions for children's detention laid out in a 1997 settlement -- a ruling that could force the government to end family detention.
The administration has until Monday to respond to that ruling, and a Homeland Security spokeswoman said they were preparing their response.
Lofgren noted that 136 House Democrats wrote to Johnson earlier this year demanding that he end family detention. She said she was circulating a letter calling on the administration to not appeal the California judge's findings.
Luis Zayas, director of the University of Texas School of Social Work, has interviewed more than a dozen children and 20 parents he says have been "scarred" at the detention centers during the last year. He told the panel that the administration needed to "pull down the walls and the barbed wire and remove the prison guards, and change our entire approach."
"Family reunification is where we should be moving," said Barbara Hines, co-director of the University of Texas law school's immigration clinic, which has worked with detained families.
Hines said that the detention centers could not be reformed and that the administration should instead shift to less costly supervised-release programs that connect immigrant families with legal and social services and help ensure they show up for court hearings.