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July 15, 2016

Protecting the World’s Persecuted

We fight for asylum seekers—and against the detention of families and children

In 2014-15, tens of thousands of people—many of them children—fled brutal gang and domestic violence in Central America and sought protection in the United States. Instead, they were met with swift deportation or prolonged detention, as our government sought to deter other desperate people from coming. Human Rights First responded by providing pro bono legal representation and pressing the U.S. government to treat refugees fairly and humanely, in accordance with international law and American ideals.

At the center of the government’s strategy for addressing this vulnerable population is a policy of “family detention”—locking up families with young children. Unprecedented in modern U.S. history, wide-scale family detention is devastating to children and incompatible with international law. We documented poor conditions and barriers to legal counsel at these facilities and pressed the United States to end this cruel and unnecessary policy.

In July, a federal judge agreed, ordering the government to release children and mothers on grounds that their detention violated a 1997 court settlement. But the victory was short-lived; the Obama Administration appealed the ruling and continued its policy.

In the meantime, we decided to pursue a local remedy. We knew that the Department of Homeland Security was holding families at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Working with pediatricians, we published a report showing that even short-term detention threatens the physical and emotional health of child refugees. We pressed Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services to withhold the license for Berks.

We won. Pennsylvania denied the Berks facility a license—a victory for refugees that sent an important message to other states: detention is no place for children.

At the same time, we made progress securing reforms that will alleviate the suffering of refugees and help them get protection. Congress funded an additional 55 judges who will reduce the backlog in immigration courts, the Department of Homeland Security issued new rules limiting the time families spend in detention, and more refugees were allowed to pass through the “credible fear” screening process to access the asylum system.

We’re keeping up the fight against family detention, part of our multifaceted effort to ensure the United States fulfills its rightful role as a safe haven.