Homeland Security Committee Recommends End to Family Immigration Detention
New York City—Human Rights First today urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to swiftly implement the recommendations put forth by the DHS Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers to end its policy of detaining children and their families. The 166-page report, which emphasized that these overarching recommendations are consistent with U.S. law, was finalized by the committee in October and released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) yesterday.
“For years we’ve documented the tragic consequences of detaining children and their families; the Advisory Committee’s recommendations are a recognition that families have no place in immigration detention,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne. “We urge Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to quickly put an end to this harmful and unnecessary practice that adds additional trauma to those who have already suffered violence and persecution.”
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 this past summer to protest their prolonged detention. Many of the families currently detained at Berks have been held there for over a year, with some young children having spent more than half of their lives confined. A growing body of medical and mental health literature has found that detention is harmful to children’s health. The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote to Secretary Johnson last year highlighting the long-term negative health impacts of detention on children and questioning whether ICE detention facilities are “capable of providing generally recognized standards of medical and mental health care for children.”
“We know that detention of children—for any amount of time—exacerbates preexisting trauma and can cause a lifetime of consequences to children’s health and development,” noted Byrne. “The Obama Administration already has the tools available to handle migration without resorting to detention. The administration should immediately abandon this practice that violates U.S. human rights and refugee protection obligations 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. Government data show that families who are not detained and have legal representation are in compliance with their court appearance obligations 98 percent of the time. 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 urges DHS to 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 notes that the Advisory Committee’s recommendations come at a time when the administration is detaining record numbers of asylum seekers. Last month month Human Rights First joined 230 other organizations in a letter to Secretary Johnson expressing serious concerns over recent reports that the number of individuals held in immigration detention facilities has reached an all-time high of 45,000. The letter urges the Obama Administration to immediately end its policy of detaining families as well as the prolonged detention of asylum seekers by implementing rights-respecting release policies.
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.