“The DHS Advisory Committee’s recommendations reflect what we have known for a long time: that detention centers are no place for children and their families, many of whom have already suffered violence and persecution,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne. “We urge Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to move swiftly to end this harmful and unnecessary practice, and follow the Advisory Committee’s recommendations to address any individualized flight risk by placing families in community-based case management programs that provide medical, mental health, legal, social, and other services.”
Human Rights First has issued multiple reports on the U.S. policy of detaining asylum seeking mothers and children, including a report last year on conditions in the Berks Family Detention Center in Pennsylvania, where 22 mothers held a hunger strike earlier this year to protest their prolonged detention. A growing body of medical and mental health literature has found that detention is harmful to children’s health, and many of the families currently detained at Berks have been held there for over a year, with some young children having spent half of their lives confined.
“Detention of children—for any amount of time—has been shown to exacerbate preexisting trauma and can cause a lifetime of poor health outcomes,” noted Byrne. “The United States must abandon the practice that violates U.S. human rights and refugee protection commitments and live up to its commitment, recently memorialized in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, to end child immigration detention.”
Not only is the use of detention harmful to children, it is also exceedingly expensive and not necessary. For cases where additional support is needed to assure appearance for immigration appointments, immigration authorities can use alternative measures that rely on case management and community support.
Human Rights First notes that the Advisory Committee’s recommendations come at a time when the administration is detaining record numbers of asylum seekers. Last month Human Rights First released a new analysis finding that asylum seekers and immigrants detained in Georgia are often held for long periods of time and face a near-moratorium on parole, despite a national directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) setting out clear criteria for release. Some ICE officers and field offices disregard the 2009 asylum parole directive, which was issued by the Obama Administration, and have taken the position that asylum seekers are a top enforcement priority under Secretary Johnson’s November 2014 memorandum, extending detention for many months even when asylum seekers meet the relevant parole or release criteria. Congress has also set a quota for the number of immigration detention beds to be funded, which is inconsistent with U.S. international legal obligations that prohibit unnecessary detention.
A broad array of voices have called on the administration to end the practice of detaining families, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, Catholic and Lutheran Bishops, and 178 Members of Congress and 35 Senators, and many groups have similarly called for the administration to immediately end deportation raids against families.