One Year After the Southern Border Crisis

Media Telebriefing:

One Year After the Southern Border Crisis: Experts to Discuss Growing Bipartisan Ire About Obama Administration’s Un-American Family Detention Practices

Below is a transcript of the August 5 media telebriefing featuring: Vanessa Allyn, Managing Attorney, Refugee Representation, Human Rights First; Kevin Appleby, Director of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs; Dr. Allen Keller, Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, Director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT), Director of the NYU School of Medicine Center for Health and Human Rights; and, Alex Nowrasteh, Immigration Policy Analyst, Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. The briefing was moderated by Eleanor Acer, Human Rights First’s Senior Director of Refugee Protection.

June 2, 2014

Eleanor Acer:

Human Rights First is pleased to host this conference call and we thank you for joining us. Thanks also to the members of today’s panel who are here to discuss U.S. detention of families seeking asylum at this pivotal moment: nearly one year after the administration announced its plan to send mothers and children seeking asylum from Central America to U.S. immigration detention facilities, a few weeks after ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] announced series of action to improve oversight of family detention, the week after 136 Members of Congress sent a letter to DHS [Department of Homeland Security] Secretary Johnson, and just hours after 33 Democratic Senators wrote to Secretary Johnson and said “we do not believe there is any system of mass family detention that will work, or is consistent with our moral values and historic commitment to provide safe and humane refuge to those fleeing persecution.”

Last year thousands of women and children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seeking safety. The administration announced last June that it would send families to U.S. immigration detention facilities. Now, a year later, members of Congress are decrying the Obama administration’s family detention scheme and experts are increasingly concerned about the physical and mental health ramifications of holding children and their families in immigration detention facilities. Many have now been detained for months, and some for eight or ten months already, with very limited access to counsel. Instead of changing course, the administration has doubled down on its family detention policy. It has secured increased funding for family detention facilities, it is defending its use of detention to deter asylum seekers and migrants in a federal district court litigation, and as of this week expanded its capacity to hold asylum seekers at the Dilley facility to detain up to 2400 children and their parents.

We have a terrific panel here today to discuss these issues. I am your moderator and my name is Eleanor Acer, I am the Senior Refugee Protection Director at Human Rights First. We have Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Alex Nowrasteh of Cato Institute, Vanessa Allyn from Human Rights First, and Dr. Allen Keller of the Bellevue/NYU Program for survivors of torture. I will start first with Mr. Appleby. Kevin Appleby is Director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services Offices and a widely respected expert on international and U.S. refugee issues.

Kevin Appleby:

Thank you Eleanor, and thank you for having me. On behalf of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, I join the voices of elected officials on both sides of Capitol Hill in calling for an end to family detention. The Bishops are particularly troubled by this policy as they see it is unnecessary, a violation of human rights and international standards, and further traumatizing a vulnerable population fleeing violence from their home country. The bishops have visited both Karnes Detention Center and Dilley Detention Center and have visited with these families and heard their tragic stories so they know firsthand of what these young mothers and children have experienced on their journey to the United States. Their main concern is how our nation is further traumatizing these vulnerable individuals and families. The question here is: why is the administration pursuing this policy? By their own admission, they are pursuing it as a method to deter families from coming, but this is both inhumane and ineffective. The forces driving these families including the threat of death and persecution are much stronger than any deterrence factor, even with this policy in place. Plus, the U.S. backed interdictions that are occurring in Mexico and in Central America to prevent families and unaccompanied children from arriving. Up to 40,000 family members are expected to arrive before the end of the fiscal year in the United States. So this isn’t working, and it’s inhumane, and it further harms vulnerable fellow human beings.

There are humane alternatives to this problem, which the bishops spelled out in our recent report with the Center for Migration Studies, Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform U.S. Immigrant Detention System. Community based alternatives to detention have been found to be effective in terms of insuring that those who participate in these programs appear at their court hearings, but also very humane, in that individuals and families can be served in the community with a case management model. It also is much less expensive than family detention, almost three times less per day per individual to be in a community based alternative to detention program than in family detention. And this is a perfect model for these families, many of whom have family members in the community. What the model would do, what this alternative would do, would provide case management services to these families so that they can obtain attorneys, they can get social services, and they will appear at their hearings, and get a valid and fair judicial hearing on their claims, and many of these claims are valid claims. In conclusion, and on behalf of the bishops, we urge the President and the administration to heed the call from Congress and others around the country to end this practice. The so-called “reforms” announced last week by the administration are mere window dressing, and they won’t solve the underlying problem here. This policy is a stain on the administration’s immigration record and a threat to the President’s legacy. It should end immediately. Thank you.


Thank you, Kevin. I am now going to turn to our next panelist, Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. Alex is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He is also prolific in his writings on immigration and we really appreciate the opportunity to have him talk today with us about the issue of immigration detention and families seeking asylum.

Alex Nowrasteh:

Thank you very much for having me here today. I think it’s important to take a look at when this controversy really began. Those of us who have been watching immigration and immigration enforcement know that detention has been a big deal for years, but we really sort of entered the public limelight last year when the surge of unaccompanied child migrants on the southwest border really captured a lot of attention. It’s important to realize that this year, so far, compared to the same period of time last year, the number of unauthorized or unaccompanied alien children is about 48% less than what it was last year and the family units are down 35%. There is an argument out there that the administration’s or the government’s increase in family detention has had something to do with this deterrence effect. I’m not sure that’s the case. I think probably the bigger thing that occurred is outside of the bounds of the United States, in that the Mexican government has decided to crack down and return to its previous harsh immigration policies that reigned for most of its history and that’s one of the main reasons why we’re seeing a decrease, not because of the detention of large numbers of women and children with asylum refugee claims in the United States, in basically jail-like situations. Now the most common argument used for why we need detention for these folks in the United States is that they are not going to comply with their court orders, they are not going to show up to court, they are just going to basically abscond into the United States and become part of the unauthorized population. This is based on a misreading of the statistics available, what we see is for alternatives for detention we see about 99% of folks who are under such an alternative system show up for their court cases. 99%. In addition to that, the typical alternative to detention cost about $5 per day per migrant, compared to $343 a day per bed in a family migration center. So it’s not only more effective to have alternatives to detention in that more people show up for their court cases or their hearings in front of judges, but it’s also a lot cheaper. So we get exactly what people want, for a small, small fraction of the price that is $5/day compared to $343.

The U.S. has had a long commitment to refugees that I think it has turned its back on since about the 1920s. We have to remember a lot of our history of religious or other refugees coming here. From the Puritans coming here, to the Scots-Irish fleeing brutal wars, to the Irish themselves fleeing a famine, to the Germans fleeing the Revolution after 1848 and being brutally crushed, to lots of Eastern European and Russian Jews fleeing from the late 19th and early 20th century, to some Armenians who were able to escape the genocide perpetrated by the Turks over there, as well as many other groups. Sadly, we turned our backs on these folks after 1920, and only recently, only beginning in the late 1940s, have we cracked the door a little bit in terms of refugee and asylum policy, allowing more people to come in here. Oftentimes you’ll hear people talk about asylum or refugee policy as a loophole in our immigration system and nothing could be further from the truth. Asylum laws and refugee laws are an integral part of a humanitarian and traditionally American immigration policy that allows people to flee persecution in their homelands and seek freedom here in the United States. It’s important that when they come here they not be met by armed guards who are going to lock them up in jail-like conditions, exposing them to mental and health risks for no increase or no benefit in terms of security in the United States. I think it’s absolutely imperative that we end family detention of these folks that are coming over here and at a very minimum transfer to an alternative detention policy, that is cheaper, more humane, and more in line with our tradition of being welcoming to the rest of the world. Thank you.


Thank you very much, Alex, and thank you for joining us today. Next up we have Vanessa Allyn, Vanessa is the managing attorney for refugee representation for Human Rights First. Vanessa just returned from a week of working as a lawyer at the Dilley facility in Texas, assisting women and children detained there and providing them with legal counsel.

Vanessa Allyn:

Thanks, Eleanor and thanks everyone who has joined the call today. I am on this call and I’m very glad to be here to talk about my experience in Dilley during the last week. I and another legal assistant from our Houston office at Human Rights First were able to spend an entire week in the facility, representing women and the kids that are being held with them. The number of people being detained continues to increase. I can really only speak to what I saw in the visitation area, as well as the immigration court and asylum officer trailer area, because we were completely restricted from being able to actually go into the living areas where the women and kids are being held, or where the schools might be, or any other part of the facility, and actually at one point we were even locked out entirely, which I can describe more if anyone is interested in hearing about it.

In the cases of the women and children that I had the opportunity to work with, I saw repeatedly quite an interesting pattern. And again, I was only there for a week, there are many volunteers that keep cycling in and out of there, and they can confirm this same pattern which is that, despite what ICE said about trying to lower the bonds for the women who are eligible for bonds or paroling them into the United States based on humanitarian parole, it seems like their continues to be a trend where ICE sets a bond that is exceptionally high, and one that women and their family members who may already be present in the United States, which is a lot of them actually and we found that there were often families that were willing to house, support, clothe, and swear to take care of the women and the kids that they were releasing in cities all over the United States. That includes Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, all over the state of Maryland, and within Texas, Houston particularly was a place where a lot of families were living, if only the women and children could actually be released to their care. Unfortunately, ICE is setting a bond under their discretion before a case will get to the immigration judge at a very high amount for these families. $15,000 is not necessarily unusual, $8,000, and often no bond at all. It was rare to see an ICE bond that was lower than $8,000 during the period that I was there, which is, again, quite a lot of money.

What makes it particularly frustrating is that once the women and their kids would be brought before the immigration court, which is tele-videoed in from Miami, so we had an interesting time trying to explain to the women and their children exactly what they were going to be seeing and experiencing because they had to look at a giant camera. One of them asked us, “Should I look at the TV? Should I look at the camera? I don’t know who I’m supposed to look at. I know how important this is because my child’s future can depend on it”. The entire experience is completely disorienting. And the immigration judges, God bless them, I would have to say, are actually very helpful, and amenable, and kind, and generous to the women and the children, which I actually have to laud them for. They are very helpful with the bonds as well. We provided a lot of evidence of what the family members are able to do, if they have status, if they have the ability to provide a home for the family. The judges were lowering those ICE bonds on a regular and continuous basis, from $15,000 and $8,000, all the way down to the statutory minimum of $1,500 and I even had one hearing where the judge consented to conditional parole, which is extremely rare to be able to obtain because the woman had some severe medical issues. She had been a victim of sexual violence here in the United States after having crossed the border, so she had alternative forms of relief and was pursuing them and was suffering from quite a lot of mental trauma in detention. She had a stack of over 100 pages of medical reports confirming that she was suffering in detention, so the judge said, “You know what, in this instance I think she shouldn’t have to pay a bond at all”. The ICE trial attorney objected and said, “If you give parole to this woman I will appeal the case”, which means that she would wait even longer in detention while her case was being appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals. So in the end the client made the choice, it is her choice, to take the $15,000 lowest bond, and we are still trying to get her out, even though I’m back in my office and no longer at the facility. We are still trying to get her out because she really does need to go.

The other thing I’d like to say is both judges actually are lowering those bonds, like I said, from $15,000 to $1,500, that’s the range. It’s a big waste of everyone’s time and energy to have to go through these bond hearings when we know it’s going to be lowered in the end, and ICE continues to set them far too high.

In terms of what I was seeing and in terms of personal human stories, there are so many things I could talk about. It was day and night. We were there from six in the morning until six at night, and then we would continue work in the night to try and prepare all the legal materials we needed to be prepared for these bond hearings to help the women. We saw children who their health is suffering, their mental health, their physical health. We had one volunteer who tried to offer an apple to one child and he said, “I would love to be able to eat that apple, but my teeth hurt too much and I think they’ll break if I bite into that apple”.  While they are providing them with good and healthy snacks, the children can’t even eat them. Regularly women were reporting to us that there were so many of them and so few medical officers in the medical unit that they will wait hours to see a doctor for either themselves or for their children. We had one woman who the reason one of her bonds was lowered so low, is she had a small child, he’s three years old, and he had a fever for five days straight of 105 degrees. When she finally did get into the medic, every day, after waiting for hours, all they would say to her is, “give him water and bathe him in cool water.” On the fifth day they finally did give her some medicine for the child. But again, this just speaks to the volume of women and children who are being kept there, and the lack of adequate staffing to care for their needs while they are there.

Another thing that we found pretty disturbing that they reported to us on a regular basis was their sleep patterns. The guards from the Correction Corporations of America (CCA), which is the contractor who runs the facility, told the women and told us that because of liability reasons they have to go into the sleeping areas and wake the women and children every hour. They either have to use flashlights or turn the lights on to make sure “everyone is breathing”, or it’s a liability issue. If anyone is hiding under the blanket because the light is disruptive, they will lift the blanket to look in to make sure the woman or child is in fact still breathing. This may sound like a small thing, but if you can imagine for a month straight, as an adult or even a small child, being woken up on an hourly basis, the sleep deprivation that is involved in that alone is a huge hardship. I can speak to the sleep deprivation I felt after being there for one week, and I got to leave and go to sleep in my hotel room.

There are many things I could speak to about what I experienced there. In the end, the access to counsel is also a huge issue. The rules constantly change, every single day, about what you can bring in, what you can’t bring in, who you can see, who they’ll bring to see you, how you can access the clients, and whether you can even get into the facility at all. On our last day there, on Friday morning, we were in fact locked out and told we were not allowed to enter the facility until 8am, which, coincidentally, was after our credible fear interviews, and courts would have started. I don’t know why 8am is picked as an hour, other than everyone is fully aware that we begin at 7:30 for both of those meetings. We had clients prepared and ready to go, expecting our presence there, and we were not admitted into the building until it was far too late. Thanks to our contacts though we were able to try and email (we set up a hotspot in the security area) to people in Washington D.C. and in Miami, to try and ask them to please wait for us, that we were having an access issue. It’s just really difficult to attempt to adequately represent these women, even just trying to get them out, much less trying to do any substantive, merits-based work on their cases. I think I’ll stop there because I’m pretty sure I’ve been talking too long, but I welcome any questions if anybody has them.


Thank you very much, Vanessa. Our next speaker is Dr. Allen Keller. Dr. Keller is the director and cofounder of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, where he oversees medical services for patients. Dr. Keller has written numerous articles in leading medical journals relating to torture and caring for asylum seekers and refugees. He’s a member of the International Advisory Board of Physicians for Human Rights.

Dr. Allen Keller:

Thank you so much, Eleanor. Can you hear me okay?


Perfectly. Thank you.


Great. I am a general internist, I am a physician, and I have been studying, monitoring, and evaluating those in immigration detention since the surge in immigration detention back in 1996. I want to first say, unequivocally, that family immigration detention is profoundly harmful to the health and well-being of the families that we as a nation have chosen to subject to this institutional cruelty. Make no mistake about it, there are ways to minimize harm and in fact I think our colleagues at Immigration Customs Enforcement are trying, there’s a lot more that they can do. But at the end of the day, no matter what you do, at best you’re talking about harm reduction, and those consequences are profound. So, why is this the case? First of all, with regards to who is in detention, family detention right now, this is primarily women and children from Central America. Who are these individuals? Based on studies that we have conducted and that other groups have conducted, overwhelmingly this is a population of refugees. These are individuals who fled their countries, not because they wanted to, not for a green card lottery, but because they felt they had no choice. So they are a population already at risk from profound health consequences from trauma, from family members being murdered, from rape, from other threats. So they didn’t leave, again, by their own choice, they left because they had no choice. They came to our great country as so many did, as so many of our families did, seeking safety and a better life, and what they found was, they were treated like criminals. They were often, and this is based on interviews we have conducted, accused of lying, they then are, some are released, and many are, a growing number, are put in family detention centers.

Make no mistake about it: this is a growing public health epidemic. The reason I say that is based on sheer numbers. In 2014, I believe nationwide there were approximately 100 beds for families in detention. I believe the goal of the administration is to increase the capacity to over 6,000. By sheer numbers, we are talking about an epidemic of pain and suffering. Why is this the case? Even if you try to make the conditions humane, at the end of the day, it’s still a detention, and a prison. Prisons by their very nature are disruptive to the family units. They are profound causes of stress, profound causes of isolation. Artesia, which was the first family detention center opened by our government was a horrific example of isolation, built in the middle of the desert. While more of the facilities recently are closer, they still are profoundly isolated. We have done studies in the past among asylum seekers, which showed a clear correlation that the longer individuals are in immigration detention, the worse their psychological distress becomes.  In fact, other studies have shown that those traumatic effects, in addition to the trauma they may have suffered which resulted them to flee, those continue for years after. So, as a matter of health, as a matter of humanity, as a matter of economics, it’s essential that we look at alternatives. And, frankly, the “we” needs to be the administration. Over and over I have heard from my colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security that they are doing what they are told. So, the responsibility for this unequivocally lies on the shoulders of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary Johnson. I know that these are decent men and I like to think that they would make the right decision. I hope that they will choose not to have as their legacy one of detaining immigrant families and causing devastating health consequences to these individuals and to their children.

I’ll leave you with one vignette. In one of the facilities I interviewed a mother who was there, who had fled her Central American country because of threats from a gang. When she went to the police to complain her husband was shot in retaliation. She fled, came, was then brought into a detention facility, and she was sobbing while I talked to her. And when I said, “what are you crying about?” She said, “I don’t know what to say to my daughter”, who was I think six or seven. I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “What do I say to my daughter who keeps asking me, ‘Mommy, what did we do wrong? Why are we in prison?’” That kind of uncertainty, that kind of pain can last a lifetime. So, as a matter of compassion, as a matter of health imperative, we need to end family detention, and we need to do it now.


Thank you very much, Allen, and thanks to all of the panelists for their comments and perspectives. They have really helped to outline the critical next steps for the administration to take in the wake of the Senate letter just hours ago and the letter from members of the House last week.


Published on June 3, 2015


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