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June 22, 2018

Alternatives to Detention are a No-Brainer

On World Refugee Day, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that “halted” family separation but doubled down on the administration's obsession with detaining families with children for longer than U.S. law permits. The problem, of course, is that these children will still be imprisoned in family detention—they will still be in cages. Another problem: this proposal will violate the 1997 Flores Settlement that prevents minors from being detained for more than 20 days—a ruling that the administration is currently challenging in court.

It is a well-studied fact that detention unnecessarily exposes families with high rates of previous trauma, physical and sexual abuse, and exploitation to additional psychological trauma, putting children and their parents at greater risk for physical and mental health problems. Our 2016 report showed that children in immigration detention can have high rates of psychiatric symptoms, including self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression, developmental regressions, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and may suffer physical health problems, such as weight loss and frequent infections. Even when children are with their families, the trauma of being caged is enough to cause these kinds of regressions.

Other tested strategies for assuring appearance at immigration hearings—including family case management, community-based programs, and ICE check ins and home visits—are more humane and less traumatizing to children and their families.

They are also incredibly effective at ensuring that people show up for their immigration court appearances. In 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported that alternatives to detention programs resulted in 99.6% appearance rates. That means that almost every single person enrolled in one of these programs showed up to each and every one of their immigration court hearings. President Donald Trump and his hardline immigration allies in the White House and Congress want you to believe that 80% of immigrants don’t show up to their immigration court hearings. The reality, of course, does not fit with the President’s fearmongering.

These alternative programs can also save taxpayer money—more than $1.44 billion. Alternatives typically cost between $.70 and $17 a day—compared to $298 a day for just one family detention bed.

Families do not need to be locked up to show up to court. With counsel, immigrants have high appearance rates—close to 100%. In cases where additional appearance support is needed, the administration should invest in proven and tested programs, like the family case management program that President Trump ended last year. They do not need to be summarily locked up and wait in prison for their court hearings, which can take months or even years.

Switching to lengthy family detention is not providing justice for families who have been separated. It is not rooted in facts. And it is wholly unnecessary.