Don’t Believe the Hype: Immigrant Families Show Up for Court Hearings

On Tuesday, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) urged the Department of Homeland Security to defend its ability to detain families in the wake of last Friday’s federal district court decision, which ruled that family detention violated the Flores Settlement Agreement.

Representative Goodlatte contends that detention is necessary to ensure that families show up for their court hearings. He claims that 84 percent of families do not appear in court. As shown by our fact sheet, this figure is a product of faulty analysis of data released by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

An accurate review of EOIR data shows that at least 60 percent of families—and maybe more—are in full compliance or have already fully complied with their obligations to appear in immigration court. The appearance rates would be even higher if immigration authorities provided quality information to mothers.

Research points to systemic problems—such as the failure to provide adequate and accurate information about court hearings—as top reasons why an immigrant might not comply with appearance obligations.

Human Rights First and other groups have found these problems to be prevalent since last year’s border crisis. For example, ICE does not consistently provide adequate explanations of appearance obligations, ICE and its contractors may provide insufficient or unclear information about requirements to report to supervision programs, and numerous accounts have been documented where ICE has issued notices to appear with the incorrect hearing location or other errors. In some cases, immigrants didn’t even receive court notices due to clerical errors.

While correcting these failures would be an important first step in assuring higher appearance rates, facilitating access to legal and social services would yield even higher results. Legal representation has a particularly strong impact on appearance rates. EOIR data shows that families with legal representation have exceptionally high rates of appearance. For cases that were initiated in fiscal year 2014, 98 percent of families with representation are in compliance with their appearance obligations.

Assuring that families have legal counsel would be a smart investment. A recent cost-savings study found that if the government appointed counsel to all immigrants in detention, it would save money. Providing quality information and counsel is more effective than forcing mothers and children to endure months of costly and damaging detention.

For families requiring additional support, ICE should seek to increase funding for community-based programs, such as those piloted by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, which achieved initial program compliance rates of 96 to 97 percent. Given the high cost of family detention at $1,029 for a family of three, ICE would free up a significant pool of money by ending it—of which only a small portion would need to be spent on community-based measures.

Given the government’s capacity to ensure compliance, it has no good excuse not to end family detention—which hurts immigrants and which clashes with the country’s refugee protection and human rights obligations. The Obama Administration should immediately end this misguided policy and implement the requirements of the Flores ruling. If it did, families would be released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody within 5 days of their arrival in ICE custody.

As Representative Goodlatte stated in his letter, the District Court’s decision in the Flores case “will essentially end the detention of family units,” if it is left to stand.

That would be a great thing. Rather than throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into immigration detention, the government would save huge amounts of money, spare children and mothers from harm, and comply with U.S. legal obligations.

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Published on July 31, 2015

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