Calls to End Immigrant Family Detention Gain Momentum

Children play in a double-fenced playground area outside the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas. (CNS photo/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

At least two major newspapers’ editorial boards and a dozen members of Congress have joined the chorus calling for an end to jailing families whose immigration cases are pending as well as other reforms of immigrant detention.

The editorial boards of The New York Times and The Seattle Times May 15 and May 19, respectively, cited a May 11 report by Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic migration policy think tank, in calling for the federal government to stop holding families in the detention centers and employ other means of ensuring people with pending immigration hearings make their court appearances.

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The report drew on international law, analyses of who is detained, how the mostly for-profit prison industry manages detention and bishops' personal experiences with people in detention. It called for more supervised release, better case management and community support programs to ensure that people show up for court appearances or deportation orders.

A similar report last October by the Women's Refugee Commission concluded that "there is no humane way to detain families." It recommended closing two family detention centers -- one of which was closed shortly thereafter, though a new one opened in Texas. It also called on the government to use less costly alternatives to detention.

The two reports were echoed by the editorials.

"Detention is intended to help enforce the law, but, in practice, the system breeds cruelty and harm, and squanders taxpayer money," wrote The New York Times editorial board. "It denies its victims due process of law, punishing them far beyond the scale of any offense. It shatters families and traumatizes children. As a system of mass incarceration -- particularly of women and children fleeing persecution in Central America -- it is immoral."

The New York paper cited the Catholic organizations' report in saying that "the detention system has become an enormous funnel for the crushingly overburdened, underfunded immigration courts, which receive a meager $300 million from Congress each year, one-sixtieth of what ICE and Customs and Border Protection get. By the end of March, nearly 442,000 cases were pending before immigration judges, with an average case waiting 599 days to be heard, and delays in some courts of more than two years. This is not efficiency or due process."

The New York Times continued: "Ending mass detention would not mean allowing unauthorized immigrants to disappear. Supervised or conditional release, ankle bracelets and other monitoring technologies, plus community-based support with intensive case management, can work together to make the system more humane. But neither Congress nor the Homeland Security Department has embraced these approaches, which would be far cheaper than locking people up."

The Seattle Times encouraged lawmakers to support a bill introduced by Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith -- the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act -- which calls for new oversight and standards, including limits on solitary confinement and requirements for adequate nutrition and prompt medical attention.

"Such a law should not be necessary in America in 2015," wrote The Seattle Times board. "But the immigration system is distorted by partisanship, xenophobia, conflicted guidance and pressure from companies that are paid a fortune to run detention centers, including the one in Tacoma, (Washington)."

It cited the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, about the nation's commitment "to securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

"Our posterity means future generations of Americans, many of whom will be immigrants," it continued.

"Lawmakers who have thwarted efforts to ensure decent and humane treatment of people imprisoned by our immigration bureaucracy should keep that pledge in mind," the Seattle Times said.

On May 21, Walsh was among about a dozen Democratic House members who called on the Department of Homeland Security to end family detention.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California said many of the women and children put into detention are fleeing violence and abuse in their home countries and "are not breaking the law -- they're seeking asylum in the United States." She said the conditions of detention, often with inadequate medical treatment, poor living conditions "and in some cases outright neglect and abuse ... is not only unconscionable, but it's un-American."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said studies have shown the long-term repercussions for children held in custody. "We know how detention reduces the chances of ever talking to a lawyer so that the truth of your circumstances come out. We all need to remember that these are our children and families. They could be our nieces and nephews and our neighbors' kids and we should not be in the business of jailing children."

At the lawmakers' news conference, Maria Rosa Lopez told of fleeing violence and abuse in Honduras to find herself and her son spending six months at the Karnes County (Texas) Residential Center. There, she said they found undrinkable water, poor living conditions, degrading behavior and lack of access to an attorney. She organized a hunger strike with other women to protest the conditions.

On May 13, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, announced oversight and accountability measures for what it calls "family residential centers."

The ICE press release cited director Sarah R. Saldana explaining that additional locations for families were opened after last summer's massive surge of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the Mexico border. By the end of the 2014 fiscal year, Sept. 30, 36,280 unaccompanied minors and 26,340 families with children had been apprehended at the border, most from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Among steps Saldana said were being taken after an assessment of the family residential centers, were:

-- The creation of an advisory committee of experts in the fields of detention management, public health, children and family services and mental health;

-- The designation of a senior ICE employee to coordinate and review policies for the facilities;

--"A series of engagements" with stakeholders to consider concerns about the centers;

-- ICE "will explore ways to further enhance" conditions at the centers, particularly the availability of play rooms, social workers, educational services, medical care and access to legal counsel. This will include "language access issues for speakers of indigenous languages" and making space available for attorneys to work.

 
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