More than 1,300 children under the age of 18 were detained for as much as one year in adult immigration detention centers between 2008 to 2012, according to data obtained by Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) on Tuesday. Even more jarring, over 900 children were sent to prison — not detention — for at least eight to thirty days even though they were legally supposed to be released without unnecessary delay.
Most of these children were apprehended because they were awaiting their parents’ immigration decisions, some were asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking, but none were criminals. A few were even placed in solitary confinement to safeguard them against the general adult population.
The report added a bothersome side note: immigrant juvenile detention numbers may be underreported because DHS only released the data for 30 of the 250 facilities for which it held contracts.
NIJC Executive Director Mary Meg McCarthy noted that the detentions are in violation of the 1985 class action lawsuit which certified that children must be held in an age-appropriate, least-restrictive setting. “It’s a startling revelation. …These children were isolated from access to legal counsel and may have been denied protections under U.S. law. It’s beyond time for Congress to step in and hold DHS accountable for an immigration detention system that has gotten too big and out of control,” she said.
The fate of such imprisoned children locked up against their will could have major political ramifications. If the Senate immigration bill falls short of the required 60 votes, it would mean the loss of two approved amendments that improves immigration enforcement policies by allowing detained parents to make childcare arrangement and to give children protected status.