Ignoring Health Concerns, DHS Wants No Time Restrictions on Family Detention

Detention is harmful to children. It’s harmful to their mental and physical health as well as development. That’s the reality confirmed by a growing body of research on children subjected to immigration detention. Despite government efforts to transform immigration detention centers into child-friendly “family residential centers,” no amount of swing sets, children’s books, or colorful murals can change what these places are: prisons. So the detrimental effects associated with confinement remain.

Even short periods of time in detention damage a child’s health and development, and research shows that longer periods of confinement are correlated with increasingly negative health outcomes.

That’s why it was particularly disheartening to read the federal government’s most recent articulation of its position on family detention.

On January 15, the government filed its brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Flores v. Lynch, the case that will determine whether, and to what extent, the Department of Homeland Security may detain immigrant children who are accompanied by their parents in immigration detention centers.

The government argues that the California district court was wrong to rule that the Flores Settlement Agreement—the key legal document concerning the detention, release, and care of minors in immigration custody—applies to children who are accompanied by their parents. Instead, according to the government, the settlement should only apply to unaccompanied children, despite the fact that the agreement explicitly defines the class as “All minors who are detained in the legal custody of the INS.”

The government laments the district court order’s lack of clarity as to whether it could detain families for longer than 20 days, its previously expressed target. In cases where a child and her parents pursue an appeal, for example, the government suggests they remain locked up for “what may be an extended period” of time to resolve the case, even though there are other more humane (and less expensive) ways to manage appearance concerns.

The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in July 2015 urging the government to reconsider its renewed policy of detaining families. In an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle, Dr. Benard Dreyer, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, described his concern “that the federal government’s current policy of detaining children is exacerbating their risk for physical and mental health problems and needlessly exposes them to additional trauma.” Health professionals in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and Australia, have similarly criticized the detention of immigrant families for its detrimental health effects.

The Obama Administration’s insistence on its misguided family detention policy is not only harmful to children’s health, but also unnecessary from a justice and law enforcement perspective. Community-based programs are effective in securing appearance at court hearings, and recent government data shows that 98 percent of families with legal counsel have complied with immigration court obligations.

The government should stop hurting children and families. It’s really that simple.


Published on January 22, 2016


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