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Rights and Justice

Locking Up Family Values, Again: The Detention of Immigrant Families

A young mother, Rosa, fled Central America this July after gangs violently threatened the family with kidnapping, the destruction of their home and death. Rosa and her seven-year old daughter, Ana, were detained at the Artesia Family Detention Facility shortly after entering the United States. Traumatized by conditions in her home country and the added stress of confinement, Ana was unable to keep down any food. Her weight loss became so extreme that medical staff told Rosa, they would force feed her daughter through a catheter. 

Out of despair, Rosa asked for bottles with milk to be provided instead. With no other choice, Rosa held her seven-year-old daughter in her arms like a baby at meal times to feed her by bottle.

Rosa and Ana's story is one of many that illustrate the devastating damage done by the detention of immigrant families. It's an egregious practice that, only five years ago, the Obama Administration largely ended. However, as documented in the report released today by Women's Refugee Commission and Lutheran and Immigration Refugee Service, Locking Up Family Values, Again, this summer the Administration has decided to resurrect and dramatically expand this costly and inhumane practice.

In 2009, the Obama Administration closed what then was the United States' largest family immigration detention facility, the T. Don Hutto facility in Texas, after years of controversy, media exposure and a lawsuit. For five years, the only families detained were held at a small shelter in Pennsylvania that, despite some flaws, generally held families awaiting an initial protection screening for relatively short periods. This summer, with the recent increase in the number of mothers and children fleeing violence and persecution in Central America, the Administration turned to a rapid and massive expansion of family detention of these asylum seekers. Seeking to “stem the flow” by sending a clear message of deterrence through expedited detention and removal, our new family detention facilities – and the policies opposing any release or bond that have come with them – ignore our obligations under international and U.S. laws and impose enormous moral and fiscal costs our country.

In May 2014, the Berks Family Residential Shelter in Pennsylvania held fewer than 100 family members. Five months later, the Administration added a hastily-erected facility in Artesia, New Mexico, with a capacity of over 600 women and children; converted an existing facility in Karnes City, Texas, with a capacity of over 500 women and children; and has stated plans to build a new, 2,400 bed facility in Dilley, Texas. The United States will soon have a family detention capacity of nearly 4,000 women and children. The cost to the U.S. taxpayer? Dilley alone has been reported to cost $298 per person each day, or roughly $260 million per year.

These detained families are largely asylum seekers. At one facility in September 2014, 98% of the women and children detained there had expressed a fear of return. More than half of the children in family detention are six years old or younger. Normally mothers and toddlers seeking protection and posing no flight or security risks would merit strong consideration for release, including on bond or alternatives to detention. Instead, these women and children are denied release, and when they find themselves before an immigration judge to request a bond, government attorneys spend hours arguing that they pose a national security risk to the United States. Many are denied any bond at all, and many more are granted bonds so high, such as $15,000 or $30,000, that they cannot afford their release.

This leaves families trapped in traumatizing conditions with almost no access to lawyers who could help them navigate these policies and our immigration system. In addition to inadequate access to childcare, medical and mental health care, and legal assistance, we find that family detention remains rife for abuse just as we observed and documented at Hutto. In October 2014, the Karnes facility was at the center of allegations of sexual assault by guards threatening or bribing detained women. In another example, a detained young mother at a family facility was suddenly accused of abuse, torn apart from her two small children and transferred to an adult facility without explanation or information on her children's welfare or whereabouts. A second complaint filed over conditions at Karnes reported that children were not allowed to crawl at all in the facility and that mothers are required to carry their infants.

We've been down this road before with Hutto. As we determined then, no amount of modifications could reduce the psycho-social trauma experienced by these detained families. The expansion of family detention and no-bond policies especially don't make sense because the administration could instead invest in an array of alternatives to detention, ranging from electronic monitoring to community support programs that provide critical case management. The government's current alternatives monitoring program, for example, costs only 17 cents to $17 per day, and has high compliance rates with court appearances.

Locking Up Family Values, Again strongly recommends that the government close Artesia and Karnes and halt any plans for Dilley, individually assess families for custody needs, improve its screening procedures to determine eligibility for asylum, revise its policy of no or high bonds for families, and turn to alternatives to detention instead of detention.

Our conclusion today remains as simple as in 2007: there is no way to humanely detain families. President Obama must order the Department of Homeland Security to end this policy and practice immediately.


Rights and Justice