DHS Family Detention Reforms Mark First Step, Problems Remain

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First said that today’s proposed reforms to the family detention system announced by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson are an important step, but do not go far enough to address the underlying problem. The reforms were announced one day after Democratic members of the House of Representatives decried the administration’s policy of detaining asylum-seeking women and children following a visit to detention facilities in Dilley and Karnes, Texas.

“These additional reforms, if effectively implemented, will certainly be a step in the right direction and could reduce detention times for many women and children,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “But the reforms do not address the most fundamental problem: the fact that this flawed system still exists.”

At a daily cost of $343 per person, the Department of Homeland Security will spend an estimated $463 million this year if it fulfills its previously announced plans to expand capacity to 3,700 detention beds for families. This amount is in addition to the roughly $2 billion already spent on immigration detention each year.

By contrast, community-based support programs and other alternative measures that are proven to secure appearance for immigration hearings and deportation are much more fiscally prudent, costing only 17 cents to $17 per person a day. These effective and cost-efficient programs enjoy support across the political spectrum.

As detailed in a report issued by Human Rights First early last week, detention creates many obstacles for asylum-seeking families, including lack of access to counsel and difficulties gathering evidentiary documents for their cases, in addition to the negative mental health effects children and their mothers experience as a result of confinement. Human Rights First researchers visited the Berks County family detention facility in Leesport, Pennsylvania this week, which holds 89 parents and children, and plans to double its capacity this summer. Some of the mothers at Berks have been detained for 13 to 14 months with their children.

As detailed in the report and in prior Human Rights First recommendations, rather than continuing to detain women and children fleeing violence and persecution, the Obama Administration should:

  • End the detention of families and children;
  • End prolonged immigration detention and the use of prohibitively high bonds;
  • Support the use of alternatives to detention when additional support is needed to assure appearance, such as community-based case management programs, which are more humane and cost-effective;
  • Support staffing for the immigration courts and asylum office, as well as legal counsel for asylum seekers and other immigration detainees; and
  • Prevent improper denials of access to asylum.

Human Rights First looks forward to learning more about DHS’s proposed measures which, if effectively implemented, would be an important step towards addressing some of the harms caused by the administration’s expansion of family detention system, a problem the organization has highlighted since the Obama Administration launched its escalation of family detention one year ago. Given Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) history of setting unaffordable bonds, there are real questions surrounding the implementation of the reforms.

“The bottom line is that sending women and children who are seeking asylum to immigration detention in the first place is harmful to the mental health of children and survivors of violence, out of step with America’s global leadership in protecting those fleeing persecution, and an exorbitant waste of money,” added Acer. “The administration should simply end this flawed policy.”


Published on June 24, 2015


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