Report Details Failure of Administration’s Family Detention Policy

New York City—One year after the Obama Administration began detaining thousands of Central American mothers and children seeking protection in the United States, Human Rights First has released a new report analyzing the consequences of family detention, as well as recommendations for a way forward for the administration. The report, released a few days before World Refugee Day, comes as Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson tours a family detention facility in Karnes County, Texas, and the United States struggles to show leadership on refugee crises around the world.

“Sending families seeking asylum to immigration detention damages children, wastes government resources and is out of step with American ideals and human rights commitments,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer, an author of today’s report. “If President Obama wanted to, he could reverse these misguided policies today. The ball is in his court.”

Human Rights First researchers and attorneys have visited family detention facilities in Artesia, New Mexico, Karnes County, Texas, and Dilley, Texas, and have met with dozens of women detained at these facilities. In many cases, the mothers were desperately concerned about the impact of detention on the physical and mental health of their children.

The report, “U.S. Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One-Year Update,” finds that mothers and children held at these facilities face an array of obstacles, including lack of counsel, barriers to asylum, and the trauma of detention.  Despite the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) announcement of “actions” to improve oversight of family detention, Human Rights First found that many mothers and children continue to be sent to immigration detention, continue to face an egregious lack of counsel, continue to have their limited access to counsel hampered by detention facility staff, and continue to be blocked or delayed from release by the demand that they pay bond amounts too high for them to afford given their lack of financial resources.  In many cases, ICE’s setting of unduly high bond extends the detention of mothers and children for weeks or months, wasting government resources by increasing the length of detention and requiring an immigration court bond hearing.

Today’s report comes at a pivotal moment for the Obama Administration; in recent weeks 136 members of Congress and 33 senators have joined religious leaders, legal groups and others in urging that the administration stop detaining women and children seeking asylum and put in place policies that better align with the United States’ long history of leadership in protecting the persecuted. Instead of heeding these calls, the administration has continued to expand family detention, at a cost of $1,029 a day for a family of three, recently announcing “actions” to improve oversight, rather than discarding the flawed paradigm itself.

The report recommends several steps the Obama Administration should take, with support from Congress, to create a humane, safe, and cost-effective system, including:

  • End the detention of families and children. In cases where additional support is needed to assure appearance, individuals can be referred into community-based case management or other alternative programs which are more humane and cost-effective.
  • End prolonged immigration detention and the use of prohibitively high bonds. To the extent family detention continues, and with respect to all immigration detention, ICE should set bonds at levels that asylum seekers can actually afford, and use parole and alternative measures for those who are indigent.
  • Abandon the deterrence-based detention approach. The Obama Administration and immigration authorities at all levels should stop basing decisions to send or hold one person in immigration detention based on the desire to deter others from coming to the United States, and should stop defending this approach in federal court litigation.
  • Support staffing for the immigration courts and asylum office and counsel for asylum seekers and other immigration detainees. Congress should also support funding for counsel and legal orientations for asylum seekers and others held in immigration detention, as these measures promote efficiency, cost-savings, fairness and justice.
  • Prevent improper denials of access to asylum.  The Obama Administration should create stronger oversight mechanisms and take additional steps to ensure that government agencies comply with U.S. commitments under refugee protection and human rights conventions and law.

“On World Refugee Day, communities around the country will celebrate the U.S. commitment to protecting the persecuted,” Acer noted.  “It is long past time for the administration to rid itself of the stain of family detention.  Simply improving oversight of its use is not enough.”


Published on June 15, 2015


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