Faith and Bar Leaders Call for End to Detention and Deterrence Policies For Families Seeking Asylum

By Eleanor Acer
U.S. faith leaders and the American Bar Association are calling on the Obama administration to end its detention of families and other deterrence-based detention practices aimed at Central American families seeking refuge in the United States.

After touring a new family detention facility in Dilley, Texas, slated to hold up to 2400 immigrants, a delegation of faith leaders expressed deep concerns about U.S. detention of asylum-seeking families. At the same time, in a March 26 letter to President Obama, faith leaders from across the country called for an end to family detention and the use of detention to deter families from seeking asylum:

As faith leaders representing churches, synagogues, and faith-based organizations in the United States who are deeply committed to upholding this country’s moral leadership to protect children and the sanctity of the family, we call on you to end the harsh policy of family detention and employ alternatives to detention where deemed necessary. We believe this practice to be inhumane and harmful to the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of this vulnerable population.

We also believe that it is inappropriate and unjust to seek to deter anyone, especially a woman and her children, from fleeing violence in their homeland to seek safe haven in the United States. A recent decision by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., which issued an injunction halting the detention of families, agreed with this assessment, concluding that a strategy of deterrence does not warrant the deprivation of individual liberty.

The faith leaders asked the President to “consider whether you are prepared for your legacy to include the purposeful detention of innocent mothers and babies in furthering an ineffective policy of deterrence that violates fundamental tenants of our faiths and the American ideal of providing freedom and refuge to the persecuted,” stressing that “the incarceration of vulnerable mothers and children fleeing violence in their home countries is a stain on the record of this Administration.”

The U.S. legal community also weighed in last week. In a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, the American Bar Association urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to end the detention of families, cease the expansion of family detention at the Karnes and Dilley facilities, abandon deterrence based detention policies, facilitate access to counsel, and use alternatives to detention—rather than detention—in cases where some appearance support is determined necessary. ABA President William C. Hubbard wrote that:

Detention is neither effective nor justifiable as deterrence to migration of families and individuals fleeing violence. Such detention violates basic principles requiring that any deprivation of liberty be justified based on individual circumstances and instead serves an impermissible punitive function that should be reserved for those convicted of crimes.

Other legal voices have also called on the administration to end deterrence-based detention policies, including the Association of Pro bono Counsel, which consists of the pro bono leaders of many leading law firms, as well as Human Rights First and other organizations committed to refugee protection.

Yet the Secretary continued to defend the use of detention for families last week, stating at a House Appropriations Committee hearing that: “I believe that the expansion of the family unit space, frankly, is a good thing. Many people don’t agree with it, but I believe it was a good thing.”

For fiscal year 2016, DHS is slated to spend $345.3 million to fund an increased number of family detention beds. Ironically though, as Johnson confirmed in his congressional testimony last week, “apprehensions are in fact at their lowest rate since the 1970s,” and “the number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the southern border, month-to-month, are the lowest it has been in several years”—with the total number for the fiscal year so far at 43% less than at the same time last year.

Meanwhile, though, mothers at another family detention facility in Karnes County, Texas, have reportedly launched a holy week hunger strike. The mothers explained, “We have come to this country, with our children, seeking refugee status,” but “have been locked in this place for as long as 10 months,” and “are still detained because we are not able to pay the elevated bond and in some cases we are not given the opportunity to pay the bond.” At least 80 women began the fast yesterday, according to RAICES in San Antonio, but that number reportedly fell after three women were held in isolation with their children in the detention center’s clinic.

Both the American Bar Association and the faith leaders called on the administration to use alternatives to detention for people that need additional appearance support. In their letter to the president, the faith leaders urged the administration to “implement alternatives for all families in immigration detention which are humane and uphold the human rights of this vulnerable population,” stressing that “our faith communities are ready and willing to welcome and assist families seeking refuge.”

A recent poll, conducted by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies for Human Rights First, confirmed that the public supports the use of alternatives rather than detention. In a poll of voters in twenty-five of the most competitive congressional districts, as well as voters in South Carolina and New Hampshire, 62 percent said that rather than holding asylum seekers in jails and detention facilities, the United States should increase the use of alternatives to detention.

More broadly, voters across nearly every major demographic, including party and ideological lines, believe the asylum and refugee system needs to be improved and strengthened to better protect refugees.

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Published on April 1, 2022

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