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  • Obama Jails Refugee Children, but Exposing It Is

    | Photo: flickr/Eddie Perez

The United States has jailed hundreds of refugee families in violation of its own laws, but only the whistleblower who exposed it has been punished.

“You would not like to be locked up in a place like this, the way we are here, suffering with our children,” wrote Lilia Oliva Bardales, a 19-year-old Honduran with a 4-year-old son. “I come here so this country can help me,” she continued, “but here you’ve been killing me little by little with punishment and lies in prison when I haven’t committed any crime.”

Oliva, who had been seeking asylum in the United States, was imprisoned instead. She was held for 8 months at a privately run detention center for refugee women and their children in south Texas, one of several opened by the Obama administration.

“Until recently,” The New York Times reported last summer, “most families were released to remain in the United States while their deportation cases moved slowly through the courts.” Now, however, around 1,900 women and children are currently held in what are purported to be family-friendly jails, three of which were opened following a 2013 surge in asylum-seekers fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. (Following what was at the very least a U.S.-legitimized coup in 2009, Honduras became one of the world’s most violent countries. At one facility in New Mexico, more than half of the 600 inmates are minors, according to the Times, “including dozens of infants and toddlers.”)

Donald Trump, the Republican reality star running a disturbingly successful vanity campaign for president, has been rightly condemned for his comments branding America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants “rapists” who ought to be immediately deported. Amid all the outrage over a buffoonish billionaire’s naked appeals to the U.S. ultra-right, however, we mustn’t forget: “jails for immigrant mothers and their babies” is a thing that exists right now, courtesy a Democrat more liberal than the frontrunner to replace him.

It’s enough to make one sick, just reading about. It was enough to make Lilian Oliva Bardales want to die: After writing a suicide note, she slit her wrist. “I do this because I don’t feel any life going back to my country,” she had written. “I do this because you were bad to me and my son. We did not deserve this.”

Oliva was found bleeding in a detention center bathroom. She survived. Along with her son, she was promptly deported six days later. That pushed her lawyer, Bryan Johnson, over the edge. “I wanted to help her,” he told the McClatchy news service. “But I wasn’t able to.”

What killed Johnson was the fact that he knew that what the government had just done to his client was illegal. About 40 days before the deportation, a U.S. federal judge issued a draft ruling that the Obama’ administration’s policy of detaining immigrant women and children violated a 1997 agreement requiring the government to place children with family members, in homes – or to at least try to do that before putting them in prisons. The problem was: Nobody but the judge, the government and a handful of lawyers knew about the ruling and they were not able to acknowledge it publicly. Johnson was one of those lawyers, working as an unpaid consultant to other immigration attorneys who had sued the government over its detention practices.

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“I can’t even imagine what it’s like for these women and children who have been there for such long periods of time,” he told McClatchy, which published the leaked ruling. “This needs to stop. And I feel this is the only way that there is a chance that the government will be held accountable.”

A day later, federal officials released a half-dozen women and their children from the same southern Texas facility in which the 19-year-old Oliva attempted suicide; some had been imprisoned there for nearly a year and had previously not been considered eligible for bail, having been deported before. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced he would travel to the detention center to inspect it himself. Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services said that keeping it secret placed him and his clients at a disadvantage – had it been released earlier, he believed Oliva would “not have been treated the way she was,” according to McClatchy. A couple weeks after that, the White House announced it would end “long-term” detention of women and their kids.

There were other factors, to be sure, but the leak certainly seems to have achieved tangible results if the timing of subsequent state actions was not coincidental: It embarrassed the state and made it less likely the judge would completely back off her ruling when it came time to finalize it. The leaker would, of course, have to be punished.

“Shocking and shameful” is how U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, whose draft ruling Johnson had leaked, characterized his actions. “You either keep your promise or you don’t make a promise,” she said during an Aug. 24 disciplinary hearing, reminding the 30-year-old lawyer that he had agreed to confidentiality – and those sort of agreements “are not little pieces of paper you can disregard.” She was relatively lenient, however: Instead of having him disbarred, ending his career, she merely sentenced him to 75 hours of community service and ordered him to attend “two legal ethics courses within the next six months” (after earlier defending his actions as the ethical thing to do, Johnson apologized to the court, “admitting his error and claiming no disrespect,” according to a press account).

Unpunished: Any of the U.S. officials responsible for a policy that Judge Gee, in a final ruling issued two days before she ordered the unethical Johnson to be reeducated, determined violated the law by subjecting women and children to the terrible conditions of “deplorable” holding cells. As when Chelsea Manning leaked substantial evidence of war crimes – U.S. soldiers killing unarmed civilians in Iraq; U.S. pilots secretly doing the same with cluster bombs in Yemen – it’s the person who exposes the crimes of the state who the state in turn treats as the criminal. Judge Gee even granted the government she ruled against an out: When there are “extenuating circumstances,” defined as a surge in asylum-seekers akin to the one seen in the summer of 2013, it can keep detaining women and their children beyond a mere five days – for how long, no one can say.

It could be worse: Johnson could have kept his mouth shut. Senator Dick Durbin did that. One of the highest ranking Democrats in the upper chamber, the senator from Illinois once claimed he had information that could potentially have slowed the rush to war with Iraq. A member of the Intelligence Committee, he said the Bush administration was telling the public “to be fearful of mushroom-shaped clouds” while at the same time conceding to people like him that there was precious little evidence Saddam Hussein was building or wanted to build nuclear weapons.

“Frankly,” however, “I couldn’t do much about it,” said Durbin. He was “sworn to secrecy.”

The rest is history. Who knows if breaking his oath to keep quiet in order to fulfill his duty as a human being to help stop an unjustified war would have achieved anything? It couldn’t have hurt; it could have saved lives. What’s beyond dispute is that if we wish to make the amoral state a little more humane, we could use more Bryans and Chelseas to expose its oft-illicit inhumanity – and a lot fewer Dicks.

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles who has been published by outlets such as The Nation, The New Republic and Al Jazeera.

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