The Movement To End Immigrant Family Detention Is Picking Up Steam. Here’s Why.

CREDIT: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Central American migrants jump onto a moving freight train as it departs from Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico in August 2014.

In a signed letter submitted to the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday, 136 House Democrats called on the Obama administration to end the practice of detaining Central American mothers and children in family detention facilities. In a scathing critique, the letter criticized DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson for not “fully grasp[ing] the serious harm being inflicted upon mothers and children in custody” and for his department administering practices, like detaining asylum-seeking mothers and children for the purpose of deterring other migrants from entering the country and for due process issues.

“For nearly one year we have been closely following the troublesome conditions of confinement, due process issues, and serious developmental and medical concerns of those being detained,” the letter read in part. “We believe the only solution to this problem is to end the use of family detention. …Detaining mothers and children in jail-like settings is not the answer.”

The call to end family detention has picked up steam over just the past few weeks. The United States Conference of Catholics Bishops released a report and policy recommendations in mid-May, urging Congress to “build a system that affords due process protections, honors human dignity and minimizes the use of detentions.” It recommended the use of two general types of alternatives to detention programs, like the full service ATD program that involves “a combination of case management and monitoring, including the use of tracking devices and home and office visits,” and technology-assisted programs that use only “monitoring technology and do not include case management services.”

According to the USCCB report, “between FY 2011 and 2013, the full service ATD program yielded an appearance rate of 99 percent at court hearings and 95 percent at scheduled final removal hearings.”

Matthew Kolken, a Buffalo, New York-based immigration lawyer, stated that 99 to 100 percent of his clients appear in court as ordered, including those who are given detention alternatives for a simple reason: “people with legitimate claims of asylum don’t want to forfeit their opportunity at a court date,” he said.

The New York Times editorial board pointed out earlier this month that immigrants are “locked up merely because the government wants to make sure they show up in immigration court.” And The Seattle Times editorial board also called on lawmakers to create new oversight and standards for immigration detention centers. Even Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley have both picked up the issue over the past few weeks, stating their opposition to keeping migrant families in detention.

Last year, the Customs and Border Protection agency intercepted 68,445 Latin American women and children at the border. Most are from the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Obama administration also adopted an “aggressive deterrence strategy” to lock up women and their children in detention under a “no release” policy as a way to deter future migrants from making the trek. Some people were released, but many were denied bond based on the argument that they could pose threats to national security.

In February, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to stop the Obama administration from locking up asylum-seeking mothers and children solely for the purpose of deterring future border crossers from coming to the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote, “this ruling means that the government cannot continue to lock up families without an individualized determination that they pose a danger or flight risk that requires their detention.” And in April, McClatchy reported that “the administration … acknowledged that it’s fighting an uphill battle to keep its family detention centers open after the draft ruling concluded that the practice violates a 1997 settlement, Flores v. Meese, on child migrants.” That settlement “called for minors to be placed in the custody of family or a legal guardian when available. If a child is held, he or she must be housed in the least restrictive environment possible,” McClatchy indicated in a separate post.

The administration also opened or renovated at least four family detention facilities in: Berks, Pennsylvania; Dilley, Texas; Karnes, Texas; and the now-defunct facility in Artesia, New Mexico to accommodate the swell. But the locations of the facilities are often far from cities, support networks, and sometimes, even immigration lawyers.

Kolken noted, “one of the biggest impediments to due process is the unavailability to counsel. They’ve built these places away from city centers where lawyers are present, which restricts the available pool of lawyers who can provide pro bono representation.” Kolken stated that individuals who get pro bono representation have a greater chance of being able to stay in the country, but “if no one sees them, why should we worry about them?”

Advocate criticism of conditions in the facilities has flagged several disturbing patterns of issues.

At Artesia, lawyers found out that if children misbehaved, everyone lost access to phones; one lawyer was told by an official, “everybody here is going to be deported;” and a child yelled out “ayuda,” or help, as a group of immigration advocates and attorneys walked by.

At Karnes, high bonds are set to keep immigrants in detention and to deter future border crossers, reportedly leading one woman to attempt suicide; migrant mothers who went on a hunger strike to protest conditions reportedly were kept in a dark medical infirmary which acted as a solitary confinement cell for three families.

At Dilley, Satsuki Ina, a professor emeritus at California State University in Sacramento, likened her visit to the detention facility to a Japanese internment camp where her family was once held. She noted that guards at Dilley would wake children up “with shouting and lights” at 5 a.m.; and that there were communal bathrooms for children who sometimes wet themselves.

And at Berks, Carol Anne Donohoe, a Pennsylvania-based lawyer who visits her clients at the detention facility in Berks frequently, told ThinkProgress that the majority of the cases she represents just “celebrated” their one-year detention. All of her clients have passed their credible fear interview, a preliminary requirement in the screening process for some asylum seekers, but none of them have been released yet. One mother, who escaped being shot at by gang members, said that a video of the immigration court process would play over and over in the medical room. “Every time I went to the medical office, I felt like I could never leave,” the woman said. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe. This place makes you crazy. I don’t know if I’ll ever be normal.”

Several mothers complained that their “kids do not eat, they keep vomiting, and have diarrhea.” And even mothers with special needs children also complained that the staff “yell at the kids and yell at the mothers to make the kids quiet.”

As the mothers said, “the answer to everything is to drink water.”

Earlier this month, DHS officials stated that they would “no longer point to a general goal of deterring illegal border crossing as the reason for detaining women and children,” the New York Times reported.