This past summer, New York Law School professor Lenni Benson traveled to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley. The detention center is run by the private Corrections Corporation of America or CCA, since renamed Core Civic—a company whose profits have shot up in the wake of new immigration policies and practices enacted by the Trump administration. Benson had joined a team called the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project. Like hundreds of other volunteers, she came to help women with minor children seeking asylum.
One of her clients, “E,” and her 5-year-old daughter, “M,” fled gut-churning abuse in Honduras at the hands of E’s former husband (not the father of M). His increasing violence was visited upon them both. The local police repeatedly failed to protect them, even on the evening her ex-husband threatened to kill little M because she was “Indio garbage.”
That night, mother and daughter fled north. As our law allows, E sought asylum as soon as she reached the U.S. border, but she could not detail all the horrors she’d faced to the asylum officer, especially the sexual ones, because her 5-year-old daughter was in her lap during the interview. M’s trauma was so great that any separation from her mother resulted in hysteria.
At this first stage, E and M had to prove they had a credible fear of persecution or harm. After a truncated interview, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officer said E had failed to meet this threshold. E and M had one last hope: convincing an immigration judge that the asylum officer made a mistake. Attorneys may participate in this hearing, but only to the degree that the individual immigration judge deems appropriate. Benson stepped in at this point to help E navigate the maze that is the U.S. immigration process. A national expert, she founded the Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit based in New York that is representing more than 700 young migrant children, most of whom arrived without a parent. Benson believed that information compiled by the CARA team would show the judge that E and M deserved a chance to present their full claim.
The courtroom was a trailer inside the detention center. Once again, M clung to her mother. Benson was not allowed to shake E’s hand or to hand M a toy or a book. The immigration judge—an employee of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, since he works for the Department of Justice—appeared in the trailer on a giant TV screen. The judge had received none of the papers the volunteer team filed to supplement E’s first-round asylum request. Benson convinced the judge to let her email the documents, but even after reading pages of additional statements documenting threats to E and M, the judge said that, due to Sessions’ new interpretation of asylum law, E did not qualify.
Benson jumped in, explaining that if he would allow a full trial, she would present expert testimony and further evidence of abuse that E could not share with M present. Unconvinced, the judge ordered E’s immediate deportation, saying he did not believe the government of Honduras would allow E or her daughter to be harmed. (It bears noting that Honduras has the second-highest murder rate in the world.)
Sessions’ reinterpretation worked: Overturning established federal case law, the U.S. no longer provides asylum on the basis of domestic abuse for women and children, even when their home government will not protect them.
The judge’s ruling in this expedited process is final; there is no “next step.” The entire procedure takes only minutes. We repudiate these women’s lives and dreams at warp speed. Benson says that she has “never seen such horrors, such desperation and such callousness by all parts of the DHS machine. This legal change is an assault on the rights of women and children.”
Little M had her own independent claim for protection, which also was denied by the system. Sessions’ arrogant refusal to follow national and international law meant E was railroaded to deportation. M would have to leave with her mother—or stay alone in a government facility with her mother unable to see or hold her. Faced with this impossible choice, E opted to bring M back to Honduras (where they are now in hiding); she knew her child, already traumatized, would perish without her.
E was right: The zero-tolerance, detention-based separations have done lasting harm to migrant children. The American Psychological Association issued a statement explaining the damage the Trump administration’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy has on children; the Kaiser Family Foundation echoed the alarm; and the many individual psychologists who have visited the detention centers, including DHS personnel, have confirmed that severe harm has been done.
Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, calls the children’s detention centers a gold mine for sexual predators; in July, two youth care workers at an Arizona facility were arrested on charges of sexual abuse and child molestation. In August, there were reports that a child died just after leaving the Dilley detention center, possibly as a result of the conditions there. These contractors lack proper oversight, and the U.S. government does not seem to care.
Congress is equally complicit. Though individual members have spoken up, at no point has Congress officially condemned the zero tolerance policy, nor have they acted to end the forced separation of families, to acknowledge the statute’s protection of asylum for domestic violence victims, or even to set standards of care and monitoring for the detention centers.
Public abhorrence, and the administration’s chaotic lack of processes or preparation, led to Trump ending the zero tolerance policy, but its spirit is alive and well. This is a defining moment for our country. Will we resist the current cruelty or will we take our place in the line of countries that, over the centuries, have dehumanized, isolated and destroyed whole groups of people who sought only to survive?