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Fronteras Extra: Detention Results In Confusion, Debts, Potential Trafficking

Cover of the 2018 study, “Latina Immigrant Women and Children’s Well-Being and Access to Services after Detention”";s:3:

Laurie Cook Heffron, a licensed social worker and professor of Social Work at St. Edward’s University in Austin, is co-author of the study “Latina Immigrant Women and Children’s Well-Being and Access to Services after Detention” with licensed psychologist, Gabriela Hurtado and Josie Serrata of Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network for Health Families and Communities.

The study explored the effects detention has on women and children who escape violence in Central America.

Heffron says the trauma these women experience in detention include family separation; being placed in “hieleras,” frigid holding cells; or “perreras,” cage-like fenced structures described by migrants as dog kennels.

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Gabriela Hurtado, Laurie Cook Heffron

Cook Heffron said detention practices such as these heighten a migrant’s sense of chaos and uncertainty. And it’s worsened by asylum regulations that seem to change from day to day.

“Once we get a system in place where we can respond to the needs of asylum seekers, the next day the rules are different,” said Cook Heffron. “In our report we heard from women who said, 'I was ready for my hearing next week. And then all of a sudden I learned that it was two years from now.' So I think in addition to how hearings are scheduled and shifted and changed, whether or not someone gets detained, whether they get detained in hielera then the perrera... I've interviewed survivors of violence who experience all of those settings (and) none of those settings.”

The study also found migrant women suffer financially upon being released from detention. Some are expected to post bond of up to $15,000, and pay private companies for their ankle monitors. This is money most women don’t carry with them, and if they can’t find work, or if friends or family can’t afford to help, they may turn to trafficking.

Compiling debts lead some previously-detained migrant women to take desperate measures.

“Some women also been in working conditions that had them there all day without any breaks throughout the day,” said Hurtado. “Women interviewed in the study reported working up to 12 hours a day with only five-minute breaks for meals.”

Cook Heffron said piling debt creates the “perfect storm” in pushing some women to trafficking. 

“Many folks that we talked to...share that they still owe a smuggling debt. So maybe when they originally left Guatemala, for example, they had to borrow money from a friend or family member to pay their way to the U.S. So they still owe that person.”

Heffron said women’s lack of documentation or a work permit also hinders their search for work to pay off these debts.

“And in addition to that, if they have an ankle monitor... it also hinders their ability to find work... because the ankle monitor might restrict them to a certain geographic area. They might have to stay close to the electrical outlet to charge it. They might have to stay close to a phone where they periodically have to check in. They might have a geographic radius that they can't go outside of, and so a job might be outside of that. They also have to periodically go to ICE check-ins or ankle monitor check-ins in other parts of the city or even in another city.”

Cook Heffron said post-detention housing also presents an obstacle.

“They might find a couch or an extra room to stay in at first, but that often tended to be temporary,” she said. “Even if they were seeking asylum and they had a precarious immigration status in the U.S. during this time, they didn't have the paperwork that landlords often wanted.”

Cook Heffron said one or all these concerns combined leave women vulnerable to exploitation.

Norma Martinez can be reached by email at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1. Lauren Terrazas can be reached by email at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter @terrazas_lauren.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1