Federal Court Ruling Upends Flawed Family Detention Policy

New York City—Human Rights First today praised a federal court ruling that dealt another blow to the Obama Administration’s flawed policy of holding children and their mothers in immigration detention facilities. In the wake of this court ruling, Human Rights First urges the administration to stop sending families into immigration detention and instead refer families to removal proceedings rather than expedited removal (a discretionary measure which leads to detention), when families apprehended in border areas.

“This ruling confirms what we’ve known all along: that detaining children and their families who seek protection in the United States betrays a long American tradition of protecting the persecuted,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne. “Detaining children and their families—many of whom have suffered immeasurable trauma in their home countries—does serious physical and mental damage, even when detention lasts only a few weeks.”

Earlier this week Human Rights First released a report on the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania which found that despite recent reform announcements from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), children and their parents detained at the facility experience tremendous legal and health challenges, including detrimental effects on their mental health that may begin within days of incarceration.

U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee’s ruling requires that children be released without unnecessary delay to a family member in order of preference beginning with parents, including the accompanying parent who was detained with the child. Accompanying parents “shall be released with the [child] in a non-discriminatory manner in accordance with applicable laws and regulations unless after an individualized custody determination the parent is determined to pose a significant flight risk, or a threat to others or the national security, and the flight risk or threat cannot be mitigated by an appropriate bond or conditions of release.”

In addition, the ruling found that children cannot be detained in unlicensed or secure facilities. The court’s decision makes clear that the family detention facilities are in fact “secure” facilities. Human Rights First notes that both of the Texas family detention facilities are unlicensed, and Pennsylvania authorities are reviewing the licensing of the Berks facility.

Judge Gee also condemned DHS for dragging their feet on reforms announced earlier this month, designed to reduce the detention times for asylum-seeking families. Human Rights First researchers found that six weeks after the DHS reform announcement, detained families continue to face obstacles to release such as unaffordable bonds, delays in interview processes, and/or lack of counsel. Some families are asked to pay bonds of $5000 or more, amounts that are too high for indigent asylum seekers to afford, blocking or delaying their release from detention. Many families detained at do not have legal representation.

Over the past year, a wide array of groups has spoken out against the government’s policy of detaining families. The American Academy of Pediatrics stated in a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson: “The act of detention or incarceration itself is associated with poorer health outcomes, higher rates of psychological distress, and suicidality making the situation for already vulnerable women and children even worse.” U.S. faith leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and bar associations, including the American Bar Association, have called for an end to family detention. Pro bono leaders have decried the many obstacles to legal representation, and the overwhelming majority of Democratic Congressional leaders have opposed family detention, with 178 House Democrats recently calling on DHS to end its “controversial” family detention program.

“Judge Gee highlights the fact that children simply should not be detained,” noted Byrne. “We welcome this decision and urge the administration to fully implement the court’s order.”

For more information or to speak with Byrne, contact Corinne Duffy at [email protected] or 202-370-3319.


Published on August 22, 2015


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