Setting the Wrong Example: The United States Can Do Better than Locking Up Moms and Small Children

Last week, I traded my 25-minute commute in Washington, DC for a four-hour drive through the dry heat of southern New Mexico. Human Rights First took part in a tour of the new facility where the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is detaining immigrant families—all mothers with children, many of them toddlers—who crossed the southern U.S. border as a humanitarian crisis envelops the region. After lawsuits and reports of horrific conditions at a large-scale family facility, the United States ceased detaining immigrant families en masse in 2009. Now, under pressure to quickly detain and deport the influx of migrants at the border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) converted a section of a remote federal law enforcement training center into its latest family facility: the Artesia detention center.

What we saw left us extremely concerned. I’ve visited many of the jails and similar facilities that make up ICE’s web of around 250 detention facilities. Conditions at the Artesia facility, designed to meet the agency’s Family Residential Standards instead of any of its penal-based detention standards, are in some ways better than those at its adult-only facilities. For example, people aren’t required to wear prison uniforms and have some ability to move freely. Yet everything that doesn’t make sense about expanding immigration detention, especially aimed at families, was painfully evident.

Many of the more than 600 women and children in Artesia have fled horrific domestic violence, gang threats, and other insecurity in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The facility was quickly erected in June, and its hyper-fast assembly has resulted in significant gaps. Many basic needs and services remain unmet: we heard reports of difficulties accessing telephones, adequate recreation, education for children, and in-person, appropriate mental health care services. The people we spoke to expressed confusion and desperate fear. As I know from countless interviews with detained immigrants over the years, what everyone seeks most in this situation is simply to understand what is happening to them, the legal process, and possibilities for relief.

The most egregious aspect of Artesia goes beyond the environment: the lack of access to legal counsel and a system of due process. Potential lawyers coming from Albuquerque, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas—the nearest major cities—face three to four hour drives. When lawyers do reach the facility, there is no appropriate space to conduct confidential meetings. Two non-soundproofed “cubicles” with high partition walls, amidst chaotic spaces where other detained moms and children are waiting, are the only places for a lawyer to meet with a client.

Meaningful access to legal information and counsel, and sufficient time to prepare cases, aren’t luxuries. They’re basic safeguards to help ensure that the United States doesn’t send people back into danger. A lawyer can make the difference between life and death.

As Congress and the Administration grapple with how to respond to the humanitarian crisis at the border, officials should turn to solutions that are fair, cost-effective, and humane. For example, instead of detaining women and children in a remote desert detention center, or the soon-to-be-converted Karnes facility in Texas, the government should use alternatives to detention that have proven both economical and effective in securing compliance. And instead of pouring money into detention, it should adequately fund immigration courts, which have long suffered from backlogs that continue to grow and undermine the integrity of the system.

Expanding family detention and undermining due process are significant steps in the wrong direction. The United States has an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world what a humane and fair response to a regional crisis looks like. It can do better.


Published on July 28, 2014


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