By Seth Robbins
SAN ANTONIO — Immigrant children at a federal detention facility in Texas are acting depressed after months of regimentation and confinement, said a Honduran mother who was recently released with her 2-year-old son.
Kenia Galeano, 26, said at a small protest Tuesday in front of a downtown cathedral that the children are suffering after long periods of being held at the 500-bed facility in Karnes City.
U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement authorities, however, have said in the past that the facility provides a number of play and schooling areas where children and residents can move about freely. ICE officials said they would look into questions from The Associated Press about the emotional state of the children at Karnes, but could not provide a response Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, most of them mothers with children and unaccompanied minors.
Galeano, who entered the country illegally last November and was detained for more than five months, said the children are unaccustomed to being restricted to the facility and have trouble with the more rigid eating and schooling schedules. She said the food, such as reheated vegetables and chicken mixed with pineapple and oranges, is also foreign to them.
Galeano said her former roommate, Delmy Piñeda Cruz, has been detained for nearly eight months with her 11-year-old son who now refuses to go to school and hides under the covers, crying that he wants to leave.
“The kids feel like they are in a prison,” she said. “And they suffer.”
Last September, ICE provided a tour of the facility, which is run by national prison operator GEO Group. Immigrant children were seen playing kickball and sitting in classrooms as they were read stories in Spanish. Officials have defended the facility before, noting that the children get daily schooling and outside play time and that residents are free to use the Internet, flat-screen televisions and a hair salon — all while their cases are processed through the courts.
Despite these amenities, Galeano was among more than two dozen women who nearly two weeks ago ended a five-day hunger strike at the Karnes Family Residential Center, southeast of San Antonio, which houses mostly women and children from Central America who crossed illegally and are now seeking asylum.
Last February, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against ICE’s policy of detaining the mothers and children without bond. Since then, immigration attorneys say the women have been receiving bonds of $7,500 to $15,000, which they cannot afford. Also, mothers known to have previously entered the country illegally are not issued bonds.
Some 15 to 20 mothers have been detained at the facility longer than five months and two have been there at least 10 months, said Mohammad Abdollahi, advocacy director at the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES. He said 10 women have begun a second protest in the facility, refusing any scheduled activities and eating one meal a day to bring attention to their prolonged detainment.
ICE will monitor residents at Karnes to verify that they are eating meals and snacks provided to ensure their welfare, spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said in a statement.
“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, and all detainees, including those in family residential facilities such as Karnes, are permitted to do so,” she said.