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July 02, 2014

Children and Families Seeking Protection Deserve Better than Detention and Summary Deportation

Human Rights First knows all too well the importance of an immigration and asylum system with sufficient staff, training, and time to ensure that those detained by border authorities have an opportunity to express protection concerns at the border. We know how crucial it is that asylum seekers and others are not held in jails and facilities with similar conditions when not necessary to secure their appearance, often far from communities with non-profit legal offices that can offer often life-saving legal information and representation.

This is why the Obama Administration’s plan to address the growing influx of unaccompanied children and families from Central America is particularly discouraging. A new immigrant family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico is opening to detain women and children on a scale not seen since the controversial T. Don Hutto detention center closed. Reports also indicated that immigration officials will speed up processing and deportation of families, now expected to occur in 10-15 days.

What’s more, in a letter to Congress on Monday, the administration revealed that while it will finally request emergency funds to alleviate the pressure on the agencies managing the influx and increase immigration court funding, this may also include the “resources to detain” children and adults, and provide “the DHS secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal” of unaccompanied children from Central America. In short, this would mean that rather than being referred to the Department of Health Human Services (HHS) for evaluation of protection concerns and to determine if the child has a parent or relative to be reunited with, Central American children would now be treated like Mexican unaccompanied children and repatriated immediately if a short Customs and Border Protection (CBP) screening reveals no protection concerns.

Increasing the detention of families and expediting the cases of children are misguided policies, and could have a long-lasting and devastating impact. In expanding detention for immigrant families, the government not only seriously risks undermining access to protection, but it ignores the already effective alternatives to detention that cost a fraction of the $160-per-day it takes to maintain an adult detention bed. These alternatives result in a 97.4% compliance rate with final immigration hearings. The government should also expand promising community support programs that can provide legal and social services. This kind of individualized case support not only makes the system more fair and efficient, it has also been demonstrated to encourage appearance for deportation.

Many detention facilities are so remote that access to counsel and critical legal information is often unavailable. The administration’s new family detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico, is hours away from the nearest major city, meaning those detained there, especially with deportation goals as short of 10-15 days, will have little chance to obtain critical legal information, let alone a lawyer. These factors have been proven time and again to be critical to due process and a fair outcome.

In addition, if the administration moves forward with plans to speed up the removal process and immediately deport unaccompanied children, they risk undercutting the time and ability to screen for asylum or other protections. A report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that border officers often failed to follow procedures designed to identify individuals with protection concerns. And as documented by a 2011 Appleseed report on the concerns of screenings of Mexican unaccompanied children at the border, the challenges of a screening in these conditions are especially acute for children, many of whom are extremely young, potentially victims of trafficking, and unable to express fears to an armed border officer after long and harrowing journeys.                                                   

The administration and Congress still have a chance to change course. Instead of expanding family detention, the administration should turn to cost-effective alternatives to detention, including community-based pilots. It should increase access to justice not by removing protection screening mechanisms through fast-track processing and deportations, but rather by ensuring meaningful access to legal information and counsel and timely, but not rushed, proceedings. And finally, while an increase in resources for the backlogged immigration courts and Asylum Office are, the government should take care to focus these resources to address immigration case backlogs nationally, not only to expedite cases at the border.

These steps would be a start to a response to this humanitarian crisis that maintains an immigration system of integrity, is consistent with American ideals of protecting the persecuted, and one that can set an important example for the rest of the world.