This June 18, 2014 file-pool photo shows detainees in a...

This June 18, 2014 file-pool photo shows detainees in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. The surge of Central American children crossing the U.S. southern border has shifted the politics of immigration. Credit: AP

Question: What kind of society thinks it is appropriate to incarcerate children if their mother is also in custody?

Answer: Ours.

For 29-year-old Bryan Johnson, what really makes his blood boil are the "baby jails." Maybe it's because he is the father of a 2-year-old girl.

The New York-based immigration attorney is calling America's bluff. He insists that if we condemn the abuse of women and children by professional athletes, we shouldn't be any less outraged when the alleged abuser is the Obama administration.

Since Johnson represents undocumented immigrants whom the federal government is trying to deport, he spends a lot of time visiting immigrant detention facilities around the country. Some of what he sees sends a chill up his spine.

"There are state laws against acts that harm children," Johnson told me. "What the administration is doing here is putting kids in situations where they are harmed and neglected to the point of putting lives at risk. The priority is removal before well-being of children. The government is harming these kids psychologically."

Before the White House apologists revert to their familiar pattern and attack the messenger, bear in mind that Johnson is no right-winger. In fact, he says that he has never cast a ballot for a Republican. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Yet Johnson has become a relentless critic of how the administration treats undocumented women and children.

Many are locked up indefinitely in primitive detention facilities -- some of which are run by the federal government, others by private companies. They have no access to counsel and experience nothing resembling due process.

Here you'll find thousands of women and children from Central America.

Last summer, 1,000 people per day streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border to flee murder and mayhem in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Since October 2013, more than 70,000 women and children entered the United States from Central America.

From speaking with immigration attorneys and law enforcement officials, it seems there were three outcomes. It all depends on when people arrived.

Those who got here before Memorial Day got the best deal. Many were sent to live with relatives already in the U.S., with a notice to appear before an immigration judge at some future date. The vast majority were no-shows.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, about 70 percent of migrant families who were released after being apprehended at the border in the last six months never reported back to immigration authorities as instructed.

For those who arrived in August or September, most of them were turned around, put on planes chartered by the Department of Homeland Security and shipped back to their home countries.

It is those in the middle group -- the women and children who arrived in June and July -- who appear to make up most of those who are still in detention facilities.

According to Johnson, the government's approach to these people is heavy on punishment and light on common sense.

He represents a 4-year-old girl being held at the detention facility in Artesia, N.M. Her father put a hot iron on her hand, and the little girl trembles at the thought of going home. He also represents a 1-year-old at a facility in Texas who may be autistic.

ICE officials argue that the women and children are nothing less than a threat to national security, Johnson said. Prosecutors are requesting bonds as high as $20,000 for what is usually a minor civil offense -- crossing into the United States illegally. Incredibly, judges are going along.

These people were uninvited and they're undocumented. But we don't know that they came unlawfully. They could be refugees.

Obama recently approved a plan to allow several thousand young children to apply for refugee status -- but to do so from their home countries in Central America. And this doesn't mean those applications will be approved.

I asked Johnson why the administration was being so hard-hearted toward women and children.

"I think they really want to send a strong message to people who are thinking of coming here," he said. "And they want these detainees out of the public eye before the election. It's deterrent at any cost, without any consideration of law or the facts. They are really harming these kids. They're doing real damage."

A threat to national security? That's absurd. The only thing these people threaten is the lie -- that a country that claims to care about the most vulnerable members of society really couldn't care less.
Ruben Navarrette's email address is


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