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

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Since 2012, the number of families, primarily mothers with young children, arriving at the southern border of the United States has increased. Many of these families are claiming asylum: most are seeking refuge from domestic violence, organized crime and gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. This issue acquired new urgency in the spring and summer of 2014, when thousands of mothers and children sought safety at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Obama Administration has now expanded family detention to unprecedented levels, despite the 2009 decision to end large-scale family detention and to detain only a small number of families for short periods as a last resort. Read our joint letter calling on President Obama to end family detention, which was signed by 97 organizations. 

The answer to this humanitarian crisis of families seeking protection in the U.S. is not to put mothers and babies in prisons. We can be humane in our treatment of the women and children and still ensure that our nation's immigration rules are followed.

Instead of costly and inhumane family detention, the administration should implement effective alternatives to detention while these asylum-seekers wait for their case to be heard. While Congressional action is not necessary to expand alternatives, Congress should act immediately to prohibit the expansion of family detention, and to appropriate specific funding for proven alternatives to detention for families.

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End Family Dentention: An Infographic

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Humanitarian Crises are Driving Women and Children to Seek Asylum

The majority of asylum seekers are women with young children–even newborns–who have made the perilous journey from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. Many are unaccompanied children, with no family or guardian. Recent statistics show that the majority of these asylum seekers have a credible fear of persecution. They are fleeing violence, human trafficking and domestic violence. A great majority are from Central America, where women and children are the prime targets of dramatically increased violence and organized crime in Central America.

The United States is not the only country seeing an increase in asylum seekers fleeing violence: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize are all seeing similar upticks in arrivals and asylum applications.

Surge in Family Detention & Facilities

The United States government is not providing the protections that both U.S. and international law guarantee to families and unaccompanied children. Instead, it has expanded the use of detention and curtailed due process protections in order to expedite their removal and deter others from making the journey.

In the summer of 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. agency responsible for border control and immigration, quickly established several new facilities to detain families. This includes one in Karnes, Texas, where 532 individuals can be held, and another at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico, with capacity for 672 individuals. Further expansion plans are underway, including for the largest family detention center ever constructed: a 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, Texas.

The practice of using detention in an attempt to deter migration of asylum seekers is not only inconsistent with obligations under international laws, but there is also no evidence to show that detention serves as a deterrent.

Family Detention in the United States has a Dark Past

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has detained families before—and learned the hard way it does not work. The T. Don Hutto Facility in Texas held families until 2009. Conditions at the Hutto facility, a former prison, were determined to be wholly inappropriate for children and families. Children at Hutto wore prison jumpsuits, slept in prison cells, and had almost no access to outdoor recreation. They received only one hour of education a day.

The Women's Refugee Commission exposed the inappropriate conditions at Hutto and the Berks Residential Facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania. The ACLU and the University of Texas sued ICE over the inappropriate detention standards at Hutto, leading to a landmark settlement and the end of its use as a family detention facility. The Administration was forced to create minimum standards for the detention of families.

ICE continued to detain a small number of families at the Berks facility. However, the policy of detaining without parole was amended, new standards were implemented, and the facility was generally used as a short-term transition center pending a finding of credible fear and the identification of suitable sponsors.

Alternatives to Detention for Families are Humane, Effective, Affordable—and Legally Required

There are alternatives to detention that are 96% effective. Methods such as community support programs, monitoring and ankle bracelets have been proven to ensure that over 9 in 10 asylum seekers appear for their immigration hearings. They allow us to treat children as children—rather than as prisoners—while ensuring compliance with our immigration laws. What's more, they are much cheaper than detention, costing from less than a dollar to $17 per day per family—as compared to almost $300 a day per person for family detention.

Both international and domestic U.S. law require that the government use the detention of children only as a last resort. Legal settlements require the government to place children in the least restrictive setting appropriate to the children's needs pending the outcome of their immigration removal case. The Flores Settlement Agreement sets out national policy for the detention, release and treatment of all children who are in immigration custody. This applies to children whether they are unaccompanied or accompanied by their parents. Therefore, alternatives to detention must be considered before resorting to the detention of children and their parents.

Next Steps: Fund and Implement Alternatives to Detention

Both the Obama Administration and Congress can take immediate action to protect theses families' rights. The U.S. must guard against the temptation to roll back sensible, effective and humane policies that protect vulnerable children and families and uphold our role as a global leader in the protection of human rights.

  1. End Family Detention. The Women's Refugee Commission has repeatedly found that there is no way to humanely detain families. The Administration should cease family detention at Artesia and Karnes, and reverse plans to build Dilley.
  2. End Arbitrary Detention Practices. No family should be confined in a family detention facility. The Administration must end practices of wholesale denial of release or bond. Each family should receive an individualized assessment of flight and security risk to determine if they may be released or should be placed into an alternative to detention.
  3. Invest in Alternatives to Detention. The Administration and Congress should invest in cost-effective community support pilot programs that provide case management and support to families.
  4. Facilitate Access to Counsel and Due Process. DHS and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) should ensure that all detained families have access to legal information and counsel in order to navigate their immigration case.

WRC Family Detention Resources