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Gender and Social Inclusion

The Complex History and Tragic Return of Family Detention

Family detention has expanded dramatically in the last year–but the root causes, policies and efforts surrounding it reach further into the past. This interactive timeline charts the rise, recession, and resurgence of family detention. Though it all, one lesson is clear: there is no humane way to detain families. 

It’s been just over a year since the Obama Administration vastly expanded the detention of immigrant families in the United States in response to the increase in children arriving from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The humanitarian crisis identified by the administration in June 2014 was quickly politicized into a “border security crisis,” and launched a new network of family detention facilities.

The policies and efforts surrounding family detention reach further than just the last year; rather, the signs of a coming refugee influx began long ago. Violence in the Northern Triangle has been on the rise for years, with Salvadoran and Honduran cities labeled the murder capitals of the world. In addition, El Salvador and Guatemala have the two highest rates of child murder in the world. The governments of these three countries have long demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to protect women and children from violence. The decision to seek protection elsewhere is often a desperate last resort for those facing death.

According to U.S. government statistics, these families are overwhelmingly bona fide asylum seekers. As of March 2015, 88 percent of mothers and their children who had asked for protection were found to have legitimate grounds for asylum. Yet they continue to be detained for lengthy periods in remote facilities by an administration that responded with panic to a surge of arrivals.

Six years ago when the Obama administration ended widespread family detention at the Hutto facility in Texas, it appeared that the United States had largely recognized that there is no humane way to detain families. Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced efforts to reduce the length of time spent in family detention and to improve conditions, these steps do not go far enough. Neither of these policies would mitigate the trauma and harm inflicted by family detention, or the enormous challenge that detained mothers face in finding a lawyer. Nor would they put DHS in compliance with its obligations under U.S. law or our international protection obligations.  

Ultimately, DHS should use the tools it has been developing for years to release families on alternatives to detention (ATDs). ATDs, particularly community-based support programs, allow families to live in communities where they can receive the support of family and friends. Release on ATD also facilitates better access to legal and social services.

The U.S. now faces a stark choice: become the nation that doubled down on the incarceration of asylum-seeking children and mothers, or restore our proud history of providing safety and due process to those fleeing harm. Our country must be a global leader in choosing a path of justice and compassion for other countries to follow.

This blog is co-authored by Jennifer Chan (National Immigrant Justice Center) and Katharina Obser (Women’s Refugee Commission)

To navigate the timeline
Hover over the sides of the viewing pane (top), and click the arrows that appear to between individual events. Alternately, use your cursor to slide the entire timeline (bottom), and click on the bubbles to open each event. 
Click the zoom buttons on your left to expand or reduce the scope of the timeline. We recommend zooming in 4-5 times beginning as events become more frequent after 2013.

For a larger version, click here.

A joint project of the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) and National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), the timeline is an ongoing project as new developments emerge.

Gender and Social Inclusion