Jorge Ramirez fled Honduras with his family in June, paying a smuggler to take them across the Rio Grande to seek asylum.
To Ramirez, 32, a propane salesman, the U.S. offered hope.
“I thought they would help us,” he said of immigration officials. “I never thought they would treat us the way they did.”
Ramirez and his older children — ages 12 and 10 — crossed first, were caught by Border Patrol and locked up at a family detention center in Pennsylvania; his wife, Judy, and 3-year-old twins crossed a week later and were detained in Texas.
What happened next illustrates what some immigrant rights groups say is the disparate treatment of men and women detained in family detention centers.
Immigrants and their attorneys argue the Obama administration is jailing mothers at the centers as a deterrent to others tempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
The Ramirezes were unable to communicate until July 5, when Ramirez was released on $10,000 bond with his two eldest children to stay with a relative in Hartford, Conn. His wife and twins were still being held without bail in late August.
“They are using the mothers and the children … to make people afraid,” Ramirez said of immigration officials. “The family needs to be united. My children miss their mother.”
After the southern border was overwhelmed with more than 62,000 unaccompanied children and about as many families crossing illegally last fiscal year, the Obama administration expanded the number of family detention centers from one 95-bed center in Leesport, Pa., where Ramirez was held, to three that will open by year’s end, bringing the number of beds to 3,700.
As of late last month, 764 adults and children were held in family detention, including eight fathers with children and one father with his wife and child.
“Traditionally, adult males constitute less than 3% of all detained families. This figure has remained static in recent years,” said Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman.
Border Patrol does not release family-apprehension figures broken down by the number of children caught with mothers compared with fathers.
“The majority have been mothers that we know of,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Migrant Rights and Justice program in Washington, D.C.
Immigrants and their attorneys argue that the administration is illegally jailing mothers at the centers as a deterrent. In February, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg in Washington, D.C., agreed, saying jailing the mothers as a deterrent to future migrants was “likely unlawful” and ordered the government to stop.
The disproportionate detaining of immigrant mothers was highlighted again in July in a federal California case in which immigrants’ attorneys challenged whether the administration had met conditions for detaining children established by a 1997 legal settlement.
The attorneys argued that the department “clings to a unique year-old policy that is not only illegal in the sense that it violates the settlement, but is almost certainly unconstitutional in that it violently discriminates against mothers but not identically situated fathers.”
Ramirez’s attorney, Carol Anne Donohoe, has represented a half-dozen fathers and wants their families released and reunited or, failing that, held together.
If a child is caught with a parent, several things can happen. They may be detained together at the sole facility that houses fathers: Berks County Residential Center in Leesport. They may be divided between their parents at different detention centers. Or they may be held with their mother in family detention while their father is sent to a men’s detention facility, sometimes across the country.
Donohoe said advocates have seen fathers separated from wives and children by immigration officials, the women and children held in family detention or the children classified as unaccompanied minors and placed with relatives or other sponsors.
“Every effort is made to keep a family together; however, sometimes the parents do not travel together and are apprehended separately. If a spouse is identified at another detention facility, [officials] will make arrangements to transfer the spouse to Berks, if space is available,” ICE officials said in a statement.
ICE officials said the agency strives to house families with children of similar sexes and ages together. When family detention centers don’t have such bed space for fathers who arrive with children, they may be released, sometimes with bonds and ankle monitors, other times on their own recognizance.
Immigrant advocates say separating families can cause problems for children.
One of Donohoe’s clients, Amadeo Garcia, a Guatemalan immigrant detained with his 17-year-old son at Berks, was accused earlier this year of inappropriately touching a female detainee in a telephone room. He was questioned by police and deported, Donohoe said. The son was re-classified as an unaccompanied minor and placed with relatives in Alabama.
“Where do they get the authority to do that?” Donohoe said. “There was no investigation. A police officer came and questioned him without me, knowing that he had an attorney. No charges. And the woman who accused him was released the next day on bond.”
ICE officials said they could not comment about the specifics of Garcia’s case because of privacy concerns, but added, “any credible accusations against a resident are dealt with swiftly and appropriately.” They added that “criminal investigations are outside of the purview of an immigration attorney’s representation.”
Another father detained at Berks with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 1, was released with the nursing baby to live with a relative in South Carolina while the mother remained locked up, Donohoe said.
Separating families also can cause problems for their immigration cases, she said.
In Ramirez’s case, Donohoe did not know his wife and children were Garifuna, an ethnic minority in Honduras, and had been harassed. That’s grounds for an asylum claim, but Donohoe learned of their background only by chance during a phone call with an asylum officer in Texas.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to the system,” Donohoe said.
Ramirez’s wife passed her asylum screening early last month but was not immediately released. Detention was wearing on the 3-year-old twins, one of whom was severely constipated.
Finally, Judy Ramirez, 31, was issued an ankle monitor and released with her daughters Aug. 20. They caught a Greyhound bus the next morning from San Antonio to Hartford and arrived in Connecticut two days later.
Jorge Ramirez said dividing families in detention will not stop them from crossing the border illegally.
“We’re fleeing violence in our countries. Let us live with our children,” he said.