Family Detention Facilities Undermine Rights of Asylum Seeker Families

New York City – Human Rights First today urges the Obama Administration to stop detaining immigrant mothers and children and to support access to counsel by releasing families from detention, tapping  alternative monitoring measures when necessary. Earlier this week, Human Rights First toured the newly repurposed immigration detention facility in Karnes County, Texas and found that asylum seekers face a range of hurdles including lack of legal counsel and bond policies that keep children and their mothers in detention even though more cost effective and proven alternatives could be employed.

“Many of these women and children are fleeing violence and persecution and may be eligible for asylum under U.S. immigration law. But by putting them in immigration detention and denying legitimate requests for release, the administration is undermining the ability of these families to secure the legal representation that is crucial to establish eligibility for asylum,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “The administration should release these women and children, utilizing proven and cost-effective alternative monitoring measures for cases where necessary to assure appearance at subsequent removal hearings.”

The Karnes County family detention facility, which was repurposed in response to the recent surge of immigrants fleeing violence across the southern border, currently holds about 500 individuals, including over 300 children.  Reports indicate that the administration plans to build another family detention facility in Texas that may hold up to 2,400 individuals.

While the physical layout of the facility is better than that used in other immigration detention facilities,  Human Rights First observed many  problems at  the facility that illustrate how the administration’s current approach to putting children and families into detention and fast-track deportation processes is inconsistent with American values and human rights commitments, including:

  • It is more difficult for the women and children in detention to obtain legal counsel for representation in asylum proceedings; without counsel, the likelihood of proving eligibility for asylum plummet.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) assessments relating to release and bond appear to be based on the goal of deterring children and families from seeking U.S. protection, rather than on the individual asylum seeker’s likelihood of appearing for her removal hearing or the potential to use alternative monitoring measures.
  • With fewer people advancing past their initial credible fear screenings, officials do not have the opportunity to collect all relevant information needed to accurately determine if mothers and children are eligible for asylum.
  • Mothers report that some of the children in the facility are depressed, anxious, losing weight, and/or sick with persistent cough and cold symptoms.

To address these concerns, Human Rights First calls on the Obama Administration to:

  • Stop holding children and their mothers in immigration detention, and instead use alternatives to detention in cases where, based on an assessment of the asylum seeker’s individual circumstances, additional measures are needed to assure a family appears for removal hearings.
  • Abandon the new approach of opposing release from detention for families, and stop setting no bond or bond amounts at unfairly  high levels.
  • Facilitate access to counsel by releasing mothers and children from immigration detention, including on alternative monitoring measures where necessary, as those who are held in detention are much less likely to secure the legal counsel necessary to gather evidence and prove asylum eligibility.   Families should also not be detained hours from cities where there are significant numbers of potential pro bono attorneys.
  • Take steps to ensure asylum seekers are not improperly denied access to asylum due to new approach to credible fear screening, including conduct additional training for asylum officers and revise flaws in credible fear screening guidance.
  • Address issues that are leading some children to become ill or unhealthily lose weight.

“The administration’s policy of putting asylum seeking children and their mothers into immigration detention sets a poor example for other nations around the world that are faced with much larger numbers of asylum seekers and refugees.”  Acer added.  “Children, along with the mothers who are fleeing threats to their children’s lives, should not be punished with detention in order to send a message to other victims of violence or to the smugglers that prey on them. The administration’s policy of using  immigration detention to deter asylum seeking children and mothers from requesting this country’s protection runs contrary to this country’s international human rights commitments.  Nor should children and their mothers be kept in immigration detention when other effective options exist.”


Published on September 19, 2014


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