On the Ground at Karnes: Children Still Harmed by Family Detention

By Olga Byrne

Yesterday Dr. Benard Dreyer, the president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote in the Houston Chronicle: “As a pediatrician, I am concerned 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.”

Many of the families seeking protection in the United States are fleeing epidemic levels of violence, including systemic violence against women and children in particular. As Dr. Dreyer notes, detention only worsens the trauma that asylum seekers are suffering.

Advocates including Human Rights First have been actively calling to end family detention since last summer when the Obama Administration announced it would expand its capacity to detain children and their parents traveling together. In response, the Obama Administration implemented a series of reforms and continues to pledge to “improve” family detention, now via its Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers.

But ending the practice doesn’t seem to be on the government’s agenda. ICE recently announced that it will expand capacity at one of its main detention centers from 500+ to 850 beds.

The administration reduced overall detention times over the past six months, and that’s a step in the right direction. But the government shortened these times at the expense of due process, in some cases compromising families’ access to asylum.

Moreover, the underlying problem is not being addressed: detention is harmful to children. Dr. Dreyer writes, “For children in particular, exposure to adverse experiences can have long-term negative effects on their development, which in turn can hurt their educational achievement, productivity, health and longevity.”

Last week I visited the Karnes County Residential Center with a group of lawyers and pediatricians to meet mothers detained with their children. Karnes is one of three family detention centers in the United States where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains families seeking asylum who were apprehended near the southern border.

Our discussion with ten mothers—who had been held there for a few days to two weeks—presented familiar themes and confirmed that shorter times in detention are not resolving the problem.

Children do not want to eat, they are clingier and more aggressive, cry frequently, and are fearful. Women spoke tearfully of their own anxiety, feelings of desperation, and confusion over the legal process, and confirmed the doctors’ concerns that being held in detention was re-traumatizating. Some also recounted dismal conditions they faced in the Customs and Border Protection detention facilities known as hieleras, which means “icebox” in Spanish due to the notoriously cold temperatures.

The Obama Administration has the tools available to end family detention immediately.

For starters, it should not place parents and children into expedited removal proceedings—a summary form of removal that was designed to deport, without a hearing before a judge, immigrants who enter the United States without documentation or with fraudulent documentation. Asylum seekers have typically represented a very small percentage of immigrants subjected to expedited removal.

Expedited removal blocks individuals from filing an asylum application until they have passed a screening interview to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution. This requires an extra layer of procedures and therefore additional government resources—in addition to the astronomical costs of family detention itself, often more than $300/day per person. Given that families migrating to the United States are part of a recognized refugee crisis, the administration’s decision to use expedited removal and the various additional procedures it entails is particularly unsound.

Government statistics clearly indicate that families held in detention are overwhelmingly refugees fleeing persecution. Earlier this year, U.S. asylum officers found credible fear in 88 percent of the families they interviewed. Moreover, recent reports by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees indicate that other countries in the region have seen asylum applications from people fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle increase by a factor of 13.

The Obama Administration should end family detention, period. It should begin by stopping its use of expedited removal against families as well as other known refugee populations. It should release children and their parents from immigration custody within three to five days, as required by the Flores Settlement Agreement. Furthermore, as recommended in Human Rights First’s recent report, Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging, the government should implement legal orientation programs at the border to inform families of their rights, including the availability of legal counsel, and to ensure fair and effective proceedings by providing families with the information they need to appear in court in compliance with their immigration court hearing obligations.

The U.S. government has a duty to protect children and vulnerable groups from unnecessary suffering. It would do well to heed Dr. Dreyer’s advice.

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Published on December 18, 2015

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