Christmas in Immigration Detention

Last week, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson sent a message. Standing in front of the new immigration detention facility in Dilley, Texas—which will house up to 2,400 immigrant detainees including mothers, toddlers and babies—he made clear that those who cross the border illegally will be sent into immigration detention facilities along with their children.

“The message should be clear: as a result of our new emphasis on the security of the southern border, it will now be more likely that you will be apprehended; it will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back….” the Secretary said in his statement. “I believe this is an effective deterrent,” Johnson told The New York Times, leaving them no doubt that the administration is committed to detaining families with children.

But this approach runs contrary to American values and human rights commitments. “It is inhumane to house young mothers with children in restrictive detention facilities as if they are criminals,” Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said last Monday. “Many of these families are fleeing persecution and should be afforded the full benefit of domestic and international law.”

Faith communities are stepping in to offer comfort to these beleaguered families during the holiday season. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and a Lutheran Church in San Antonio have launched an initiative to deliver Christmas presents to children who will spend their first Christmas in this country in a family immigration detention facility in Karnes County, Texas. Thousands of volunteers have already sent Christmas cards with wishes of hope.

While the administration seems intent on characterizing these women and children simply as illegal border crossers, many are refugees entitled to protection under our laws and treaty commitments. A study conducted by the U.N. Refugee Agency concluded that about 60% of children it interviewed had potential claims to asylum or other international protection. In addition, pro bono lawyers working with the American Immigration Lawyers Association have won asylum for 12 women held in the family detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico—proving in every case they’ve handled so far that these women were indeed refugees entitled to protection.

How can the United States champion protection for refugees fleeing violence and persecution in other parts of the world while it employs deterrence-based policies that fly in the face of international refugee protection standards?  The irony is that while states around the world face staggering numbers of refugees—there are more in the world today than at any time since World War II—the numbers at the U.S. southern border are relatively small.

In fact, Secretary Johnson emphasized in his statement yesterday that attempts to cross the border illegally “are down dramatically from a high of 1.6 million in the year 2000 to about 480,000 this past fiscal year. This number is at the lowest it’s been since the 1970s.”

This country’s values and its commitments under human rights conventions—including Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 31 of the Refugee Convention—should not be jettisoned in the face of migration-management objectives and the politics of our domestic immigration debate. The administration’s approach is even more inexplicable given the fact that migration management objectives can be effectively addressed through alternative measures.

Not only are the border-crossing numbers at an all-time low, but the costs of detention are high. As Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has pointed out, the Dilley facility, which will be run by Corrections Corporation of America, will cost the U.S. government about $300 a day to operate—amounting to roughly $260 million each year. By contrast, community-based support programs and other alternative measures, proven to uphold appearance for immigration hearings and deportation, are much more fiscally prudent, costing only 17 cents to $17 a person a day.

These programs—which are effective and cost-efficient—enjoy support across the political spectrum. Many of these women and children have close family in this country who are ready to take care of them. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services have also piloted and are willing to run community-based appearance support programs that can help make sure immigrants show up for hearings.

As Human Rights First and other leading refugee organizations told President Obama in a letter last month, U.S. border policies should respect basic human rights standards and set an example for other countries faced with much greater challenges.

One critical step is to end the detention of families and opposition to release on bond for Central American mothers. Instead, the administration and Congress should support the use of alternatives to detention, including programs initiated by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service. Maybe then faith communities will not need to spend next Christmas season decrying this country’s detention of families and calling on good-hearted Americans to help them deliver presents to children held in immigration detention.

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  • Eleanor Acer

Published on December 22, 2014

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