A fence along the U.S Mexican border west of Nogales, Ariz., on March 16, 2018. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Witnessing cruelty at the border

For two hours, I sat in a courtroom behind a sea of scared and exhausted faces, smelling the stench of sweat and fear from dozens of tired bodies that traveled through deserts and across rivers. In a federal courtroom in McAllen, Texas, I watched in horror as over forty individuals charged with illegal entry plead guilty — one by one, shackled to each other — to their “crime.”

My colleague and I recently joined teams of volunteer lawyers at the southern border to assist immigrant parents whose children had been taken away from them under the so-called “Zero Tolerance” policy.

I visited Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC), where those who plead guilty were taken and held until they could be reunited with their children or their legal cases concluded. For nearly eight hours, I sat in a tiny visitation room with parents dressed in prison jumpsuits as they wept for the loss of the children that had been ripped from their arms.

I listened to heartbreaking stories about homelands that included missing relatives, unlawful detentions, and near death beatings – these stories have permanently bore scars like bullet wounds. Over and over, I heard from weeping mothers and fathers who were pleading for their children. One woman asked me if she could take back the signature that she had unwittingly placed on a document stating she’d give up her daughter to go home when a guard promised her that doing so meant seeing her daughter sooner. Later, I watched as children – some not even waist high – unloaded from a van at the detention center to finally reunite with their parents.

This is not justice. It saddens me beyond words that our government has pushed these parents to a place where they would give up so many rights and perhaps their only chance for safety in hopes that they hold their child in their arms again. While life-changing for their shattered mental health and well-being, reunification was just the beginning of these families’ long fight for asylum and justice in the U.S.

Some of the families that were released from PIDC have already relocated here to the Bay Area where they have friends and family. These are the lucky ones who escaped further family detention in Texas and in ICE-contracted facilities like the West County Detention Facility that recently closed in Richmond, CA. But even these “lucky” parents and their children continue to carry the trauma that will not instantaneously fade away, which makes it all the more critical that we meet their ongoing needs with wraparound holistic care, including support in accessing mental health services.

These new Bay Area families will need support groups, engaging activities, and a sense of community where they can begin to rebuild the trust that our government’s lies have destroyed.

They will also need free legal advice and representation in their native languages to navigate complex Immigration Court proceedings. Some, like the woman who may have signed away her parental rights, will need legal help to reverse the effects of signing documents under duress.

Others will need access to health care services to treat illnesses they contracted while being held in mass detention facilities or ongoing ailments their previous persecution caused, like broken and dislocated bones from beatings. While we Californians cannot erase the initial cruelty that these families have endured, we can and must provide them with free legal and social services to begin undoing the damage.

Morgan Weibel is the Executive Director for the Tahirih Justice Center San Francisco Bay Area office.

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