This International Migrants Day, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) calls on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop detaining women and children who have come to the United States seeking refuge from serious human rights abuses. After surviving horrific violence in their home countries as well as during the journey to the U.S., they should be allowed to pursue their legal right to seek asylum or other relief without being locked up.
DHS’s own Advisory Committee of experts on family detention released a report at the end of September with their findings and recommendations, the very first of which is that DHS should discontinue the general use of family detention and recognize that detention is never in the best interest of children. University of California Hastings Professor and CGRS Director Karen Musalo served on the Advisory Committee and authored a portion of the report.
Prior to 2014, DHS’s general practice was not to put families in detention but to allow them to pursue their cases while living in the community. In 2014, there was only one family detention center in operation in the entire country, with capacity to house fewer than 100 individuals. Today, there are over 3,000 beds allocated for family detention and ICE announced at the end of October that it is considering adding an additional 2,500.
The expansion of family detention directly contradicts DHS’s own stated policy to “not expend detention resources on aliens who are known to be suffering from serious physical or mental illness…who demonstrate that they are primary caretakers of children…or whose detention is otherwise not in the public interest.” Many of the women and children in family detention have serious trauma-related psychological conditions, which are only exacerbated by detention in what, as described in a recent letter by a group of former Immigration Judges, are effectively jails.
Moreover, detaining families in immigration detention makes it substantially more difficult for them to pursue claims for asylum or other relief. For example, many are unable to find pro bono representation while detained or may not have had access to an interpreter to even understand the legal process. Facing these obstacles and many others in the complicated road to winning immigration relief, women and children with bona fide claims are being wrongfully returned to their home countries to face the same abuses that led them to flee in the first place, or, as reported by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, even death.
Like many of our allies in the movement for immigrant and refugee rights, CGRS is deeply concerned that family detention will continue to expand unchecked under the Trump Administration. Our President-elect has promised to deport millions of our immigrant community members, including many children. Analysts and investors predict that private immigration detention centers will be a critical component of the Trump Administration’s mass deportation plan, which will require existing facilities to substantially increase their capacity. Unsurprisingly, within hours of Donald Trump’s electoral victory, stocks soared for Corrections Corp. and GEO Group Inc., the country’s two largest private prison companies, currently contracted by ICE to operate family detention centers in Texas. While our President-elect has claimed that private prisons “[seem] to work better,” numerous reports have exposed the inhumane conditions, pervasive abuses, and culture of impunity that plague for-profit prisons and immigration detention facilities.
Our President-elect’s proposed immigration policies and the rhetoric around them run contrary to America’s most cherished values of dignity, equality, and respect for human rights. They violate our Constitution, our domestic and international legal obligations, and our moral character as a nation. On International Migrants Day – and every day – CGRS stands in coalition and solidarity with refugee and immigrant communities around the world. In the face of a global refugee crisis and a humanitarian emergency of unprecedented scale at our southern border, we prepare to fight now, harder than ever, to realize our vision of a world where the right of every child and adult to live free from violence and persecution is protected. As a necessary first step, the inhumane mass incarceration of refugee and immigrant children and families at our borders must end now.