Reforms to Family Detention System Are Insufficient

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First said today that proposed reforms to the family immigration detention system by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are insufficient to address human rights concerns.  The organization urges the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its misguided policy of detaining families and children.

“Reforming the family detention system is like putting a bandaid on a gaping wound,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer, who toured the Dilley Family Detention Facility in Texas this week. “The fact is that family detention is a critically flawed program; putting mothers and children seeking U.S. protection into immigration detention is an affront to American ideals of liberty and due process, as well as international human rights law.”

Last year, U.S. immigration authorities adopted a policy of denying and opposing release from detention for asylum seekers based on a desire to deter others from migrating. The administration continues to try to justify this rationale in federal court, defending its approach of detaining asylum seekers for months even when they are otherwise eligible for release on bond and present no risk of flight based on their individual circumstances.

“ICE has proposed a review process for any families detained beyond 90 days, but detaining children and their families for months is simply unacceptable,” said Acer. “In many cases we’re talking about women and small children, some of whom have been detained for up to ten months. The bottom line is that asylum seekers should not generally be detained, and immigration detention is not appropriate for children and their families.”

The Department of Homeland Security is slated to spend $345.3 million in fiscal year 2016 to fund the escalation of family detention. This amount is in addition to the roughly $2 billion already spent on immigration detention each year. The Dilley facility, run by Corrections Corporation of America, will cost the U.S. government over $300 a day per person held in the facility, amounting to roughly $260 million each year.

By contrast, community-based support programs and other alternative measures that are proven to secure appearance for immigration hearings and deportation are much more fiscally prudent, costing only 17 cents to $17 per person a day. These effective and cost-efficient programs enjoy support across the political spectrum.

An asylum seeker’s best hope of protection is in having a lawyer to represent him or her in immigration court proceedings. Yet it is much more difficult for immigrants to secure legal counsel when they are held in immigration detention. Without an attorney, a mother has almost no chance of receiving asylum. According to recent TRAC data, 98.5 percent of lawyer-less women with children were deported, even when the government had determined they had a credible fear of persecution if returned home. With a lawyer, their ability to prove their cases increases significantly.

Rather than continuing its flawed policy of detaining women and children fleeing violence and persecution, the Obama Administration should:

  • End the detention of families and all attempts to base detention determinations on the desire to send a message to others;
  • Remove all impediments to counsel, allow pro bono attorneys to use the tools they need to facilitate legal representation and provide funding for the representation of detained immigrants; and,
  • Use case management and community based alternatives to detention in cases where additional measures are needed to assure appearance.

Published on May 14, 2015


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