Children Without a Country
"A man without a country," is what Judge Maryanne Trump Barry called the hapless stowaway, Salim Yassir, who was born in Palestine, exiled to Libya, and jailed in the USA. Four years after foiling Yassir’s 2000 attempt to enter the USA, immigration authorities were still claiming they should keep him in jail while they looked for a country that would take him. But Judge Barry (the Donald’s older sister) put an end to that legal purgatory in 2004 when she ruled that a man without a country has rights, too. Yassir could just as easily live outside jail while authorities pursued their executive agendas.
In some ways Yassir’s story is similar to one now being lived by three Texas families of Palestinian heritage. They are people without a country. From Palestine they have fled to the USA, sometimes through other countries. Immigration authorities have denied them asylum, ordered them deported, and they are being jailed indefinitely in legal purgatory while some country is found to take them.
But the Texas families are not stowaways. They entered the USA with visas and have always lived public lives in their pursuit of asylum in the USA, growing their opportunities and their families along the way. The Ibrahim family, for example, arrived with four children, gave birth to a fifth, and are expecting a sixth. For the Ibrahim children who have lived in Palestine, memories are not so good, and they fear going back to a place where they are subject to so many military assaults.
Maryam Ibrahim was about two years old in 2000 when a gas canister crashed into her Palestinian home, rendering her unconscious for lack of breath. Pleading to USA authorities for asylum in 2002, Maryam’s father Salaheddin testified that his little girl was fearful of people in uniform. Yet USA authorities have denied asylum and placed Maryam in jail where family members say she is not allowed to run indoors or go outdoors, and where every night at 10 p.m. she is ordered into a cell separate from where her pregnant mother is being kept. Frequently, Maryam cries. Maryam shares the overnight cell with older sister Rodaina, while younger sister Faten shares a cell with mother Hanan. Family members confirm reports that Hanan is not getting medical attention for her pregnancy, placing Maryam’s little brother-to-be at risk.
Despite a near blackout from corporate media–who will often report about Hutto protest actions without mentioning the Palestinians–these three Texas families are attracting supporters, activists, and attorneys from near and far. On Thursday evening, Texas activists joined local residents in a third vigil outside the T. Don Hutto prison camp for immigrant families. Thanks to public documents obtained by Williamson County Sun reporter Ben Trollinger, folks were able to determine that a county lease arrangement with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) would expire next Wednesday, Jan. 31.
"It is a moral wrong to imprison children," said county resident Jane Van Praag to the Williamson County Commissioners Court last Tuesday, making points she expects to repeat next Tuesday, the day before the lease with CCA expires. "It is morally wrong to imprison whole families with children without exhausting all the alternatives, which would allow families to stay together while ensuring immigrants attend their immigration hearing."
Meanwhile, the education of jailed children became an issue this week when the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that hours of instruction had been increased from one to four since protests began in mid-December. Yet the increase was not enough to satisfy attorneys from the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) who have threatened to sue very soon if instruction is not increased to seven hours as mandated by state law. TCRP attorneys (with whom I work part time) have been busy with Williamson County schools lately, providing pro bono defenses for a hundred school children prosecuted by the Round Rock school district for attending historic immigrant-rights marches instead of classes last Spring.
At the Thursday vigil, people continued to talk about a broader agenda of resistance, not only closing the Hutto children’s prison, but every such prison in the USA. South Texas entrepreneur Jay J. Johnson-Castro, who discovered the expiration date in the lease between CCA and the county, carries around a liberally highlighted copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
"Every right of the child that other countries have ratified is being violated at Hutto," said Johnson-Castro. "This is international law that the US wouldn’t agree to. The international community has higher standards than the USA. And the reason is so the USA can do whatever it wants with impunity."
As a result of treatyless impunity, children from all three families continue to suffer. Zahra Ibrahim, the fifth child mentioned above–and a USA citizen–has been prevented from seeing her pregnant mother since the two were separated upon arrest in early November.
Likewise with the 4-year-old citizen twin daughters of Adel Suleiman and Asma Quddoura. Adel, the father who was born into a Palestinian refugee camp 61 years ago, is now pleading for speedy deportation to end his solitary confinement in an Oklahoma City jail. Dallas attorney John Wheat Gibson says the solitary time is apparent retaliation for Suleiman’s public complaints about smelly and risky conditions in another Oklahoma County jail. Following Suleiman’s wishes, Gibson has dropped any actions that would delay the Suleiman family’s removal, including the deportation of the 4-year-old twin citizens. The deportation could come Monday, says Riad Hamad of the Texas-based Palestinian Children’s Welfare Fund, who has been raising money to support the families and their legal fees.
As for the Hazahza family, information is more tightly guarded by the family attorney, but we have learned that when Ahmad recently turned 18 in a Haskell, Texas immigration prison, he was not removed from solitary confinement. Ahmad is the only member of these families that has been cited for having a criminal record–burglary convictions–although the original press release about his arrest curiously misstated his age in order to make him look like an adult.
The criminal treatment of all these families’ children would end, says Johnson-Castro, if the Convention on the Rights of the Child were adopted by the USA.
"It’s time for Congress to show what they are made of," says Johnson-Castro. "There is an element within the Republican party committing this atrocity and profiting from it. We’re insisting that it stop now."
Johnson-Castro will return to the Hutto jail for a fourth vigil on Feb. 12 as part of the Marcha Migrante II border caravan that will travel from San Diego to Brownsville and back. He may also toss in a demonstration at nearby Round Rock in solidarity with the prosecuted student marchers.
Border mayors from Texas are supporting the caravan, says Johnson-Castro. And this, according to Steve Taylor of the Rio Grande Guardian, is a better response from the mayors than Johnson-Castro got during his first border walk, just prior to the November 2006 elections.
The border mayors don’t want a wall, and they are not happy about the Texas Governor’s Jan. 22 announcement to send 600 armed National Guard for border patrol duties. Johnson-Castro says the border mayors were also dismayed by President George W. Bush’s Jan. 23 pledge to double the border guard.
"President Bush and Secretary Chertoff represent the heart of America as much as Governor Perry and Ted Nugent represent the heart of Texas," said Johnson-Castro.
Ted Nugent rocked himself onto center stage of this political circus when he wore a confederate-flag t-shirt to his performance at the inaugural ball of the Texas Governor. Nugent denies that he made anti-immigrant remarks, too. As for the Texas Governor Rick Perry, when he heard that the confederate flag was not appreciated by Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe, the Governor made a phone call. But he didn’t call Bledsoe to apologize. Instead, he called Nugent to commiserate. It’s enough to make a fellow ashamed that the Governor is from Texas.
As post-election politics reverts to Civil War for everyone all over again, word comes that Yankee lawyers will be coming down to reinforce the struggle for Constitutional principles in Texas–even when applied to children without a country. Which is why we are reading the Yassir decision in the first place. Stay tuned.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.