Jailing Families

The children appeared sick and malnourished. They lived in large dormitory style rooms and were forced to use the bathroom in public view. Some had to wear prison style clothes and sleep with the lights on. Schooling was infrequent at best.

This catalog of ills, taken from legal proceedings and cited in The New York Times Magazine (2/4), described conditions at a federal detention facility for undocumented mothers and children near Austin, Tex. Lawyers for the government called them exaggerated, but if any of these allegations are true, they represent a violation of human rights standards and must be addressed.

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The U.S. bishops have repeatedly called attention to the potential for abuses in family detention centers. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security dated Oct. 1, 2014, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the Committee on Migration of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote: “Family detention is harmful to the physical and mental health of these families, as children are often depressed and in weak physical condition due to emotional stress.... Mothers, already traumatized by violence, including sexual assault…remain traumatized and confused by the detention setting and the inability to access family or other emotional support.”

The journey of families from Central America to the United States since 2008 is well documented. More than 61,000 people in all have crossed the border, many of them fleeing violence sparked by drug wars. Less attention has been paid to what has happened since. Mothers with children have been placed in detention facilities that resemble prisons, even though federal judges have ruled that all children in federal custody should be subject to a “general policy favoring release.” The Bush administration argued that the case in question, Flores v. Meese, applies only to unaccompanied children, not children with parents. The Obama administration is now following the same approach, hoping that aggressive detention policies will deter more families from crossing the border. The bishops argue, persuasively, that mothers and children pose little security risk and can be safely released to relatives and “alternatives to detention” programs.

The influx of thousands of children and families has posed a unique challenge. It is not surprising that government facilities were unable to handle the increased numbers. But a policy that relies on detention of families is fundamentally flawed. What parents would want their children living in rooms with bars, with little opportunity to play with other children?

Is it worth spending the time and money to improve conditions at detention centers when other, less expensive options are available? The government appears to think so. A new facility in Dilley, Tex., specifically designed for families with children opened in December. It is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company, and can accommodate 2,400. The new camp will have playgrounds and child care workers on staff. On the surface, it would seem to be an improvement on conditions in other facilities, but only if one subscribes to the notion that detention centers are the only option for migrant families. They are not.

Alternative detention programs, which range from nonprofit residential facilities to monitoring programs that include curfews and regular check-ins, meet many needs. They allow women to seek legal help while their children receive schooling and other basic services. At federal detention centers, families do not have ready access to lawyers, whose help has been shown to greatly increase chances of gaining legal asylum. According to one study, detainees placed in a well-managed monitoring program had a court appearance rate of 93 percent.

Unfortunately, the new Congress has proposed attaching more restrictive immigration measures to a current funding bill. One proposal would allow children to stay up to 30 days in border patrol stations and other temporary quarters, which are not designed for families, until they are moved to long-term detention centers. In an address to Congress on Feb. 11, Bishop Gerald Kicanas argued that “children can be emotionally and psychologically harmed by lengthy detention in restrictive settings.”

The Obama administration has made some important steps toward reforming our nation’s immigration policies. Unfortunately, the president’s recent executive actions apply only to individuals who have been in the country more than five years. Many of the families who have come from Central America do not qualify, although they can be legitimately considered refugees. A generous government policy would give them the resources to investigate their legal options while allowing their children to live in the best possible environment—someplace without fences and barbed wire.

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