Mothers on Hunger Strike
The women have come to the United States from Central America, many fleeing gang violence and seeking a better life for their children. What they have found here is a different sort of hardship. Many mothers who have crossed the border illegally with their children are being held at Karnes Detention Center in Texas, often in unhealthy conditions, a situation documented in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine (“The Shame of America’s Family Detention Camps,” 2/4) and in these pages (“Jailing Families,” 3/2). Yet the poor conditions continue, and 78 of the women in the detention center recently took matters into their own hands. In a letter handwritten in Spanish, the women stated that they were staging a hunger strike and would refrain from using the school and services of the center in an effort to expedite their release and improve the conditions of the center. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have stated they have no knowledge of the strike, which is said to have coincided with Holy Week.
Lawyers and advocates for the women and children say that the response to the hunger strike has been unnecessarily harsh. They allege that at least two women, along with their children, ages 11, 10 and 2, were placed in isolation rooms in the medical unit, in which they were forced to sit in darkness except during meal times. The practice of isolation and sensory deprivation is controversial even for violent criminals. If the practice is in fact being used on mothers and children, it is a human rights violation. Many of the detained women are seeking asylum and have passed an interview that determined their flight from their home countries was based on a “credible fear” for their safety. The United States should ensure that its efforts to enforce immigration policy do not add to the trauma that these women have already experienced.
‘Mentoring’ Czech Catholics
As a mode of governance, Communism may have entered history’s dustbin, but as far as Eastern Europe is concerned, the mentality it fostered lingers. In an Eastertime interview with Czech radio, the retired Catholic archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, decried what he viewed as politically motivated state interference in internal church affairs.
The controversy revolves around a law on church restitutions approved by the Czech Parliament in 2012 that grants churches “full independence” from the state by the year 2030. Over a 30-year period the Catholic Church will receive land, property and money as compensation for the confiscations that took place under Communist rule. What aggravates the cardinal is the fact that the ruling Social Democratic government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (himself Catholic) is trying to “mentor” the church on how to spend its money (specifically, to build hospices and old-age homes). “The church is perfectly aware of its duty, and we will naturally fulfill our mission in caring for the ill and elderly,” said Cardinal Vlk, “but not because politicians tell us to do so.”
The Czech president, Milos Zeman (a self-described “tolerant atheist”), plans to broach the subject with Pope Francis in an audience on April 24. Cardinal Vlk believes “the pope has no intention of interfering,” but says that if the Czech president carries out his plan, it will be a “sign of ignorance” on his part about how the church works. The episode may prove an important lesson for Czech political leaders on just what an independent church really looks like.
Give Them the Vote
Legislation allowing noncitizen residents the right to vote in municipal elections is currently being considered in New York City by Mayor Bill de Blasio and municipal lawmakers. The bill—which could pass as early as this month—would give legal residents who have been living in New York City for at least six months the right to vote in local elections. Supporters say the measure would provide a voice for residents who already pay taxes and are involved in their communities. According to The Guardian, it would also prevent politicians from overlooking “the needs of entire communities” that often do not receive proper local representation because of council redistricting. But the proposal has met opposition. Critics argue that it weakens the meaning and privileges of citizenship, adding that it would further deter legal residents from seeking full citizenship.
New York would not be the first municipality to grant noncitizens the right to vote in certain elections, but it would be the largest. Six small towns in Maryland currently allow noncitizens to vote, and in Chicago they are allowed to participate in school elections. Around the world, countries like New Zealand, Chile, Colombia and Ireland have similar policies in place.
While the issue of noncitizen voting in the United States is not new, additional jurisdictions should consider enacting these laws. Not only would this give a voice to often-ignored communities, but the experience of civic engagement might encourage people living here legally to continue on the path to full citizenship.