Moms and Kids Will Spend Mother’s Day Locked in Immigration Detention
For the second year in a row, hundreds of moms will spend Mother’s Day in family detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas with their children and babies. During the past year there were promising developments in the fight against the government’s policy of detaining asylum-seeking parents with their children, including the order in the Flores case and DHS Secretary Johnson’s announcement last June that “long-term detention is an inefficient use of [Department of Homeland Security] resources.”
However, setbacks in recent weeks prove yet again that the only solution that respects the human rights of children and families is to end family detention entirely.
At Berks, a Pennsylvania detention center where I have been working with a coalition of local advocates to ensure all families have access to pro bono or “low bono” legal representation, the majority of the families have been subjected to long-term detention. ICE previously maintained that it would strive for an "average length of stay" in family detention of no more than 20 days. However, more than half of the families at Berks have been detained for upwards of four months. One family has now been detained for almost nine months.
The majority of the mothers and children in long-term detention at Berks are from El Salvador, a country facing an epidemic of violence against women and human rights violations. The UNHCR saw fit to issue eligibility guidelines outlining the protection needs for asylum seekers from El Salvador this year. It states, “the small and densely-populated country… presently has the highest rate of homicides of any country in the world,” speaking to the alarming scale of violence and human rights catastrophe there.
All of the Salvadoran mothers currently detained at Berks have expressed a fear of returning to their country. Yet despite the many well-documented materials on the country conditions supporting their claims, these women remain in detention. Determining whether individuals have a “credible fear” or “reasonable fear” of persecution or torture is often the first step towards receiving legal protection to remain in the United States.
Yet ICE maintains that these families should not have the right to seek asylum here. After initial negative credible fear determinations by the Asylum Office, they were caught up in a wave of transfers from Texas to Berks. At that time, Human Rights First and the CARA Pro Bono Project documented in a letter to high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officials that USCIS appeared to adjudicate requests for the reconsideration of negative credible and reasonable fear determinations with a heightened standard, resulting in denials of requests for new credible fear interviews. The letter outlined serious due process concerns such as lack of counsel, interpretation problems, and failure to consider children’s claims independently from their parent in the initial fear interviews for the families. Now, their cases are before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Advocates recently submitted release requests to ICE in Philadelphia for 21 families detained at Berks. Although ICE has the authority to release the families at its discretion, all requests were denied because the families have not received positive fear determinations.
These mothers and their children all have friends and relatives in the United States who provided letters asserting their willingness to receive them, but ICE decided to keep the families in the costly detention center rather than allow them to be released. This strategy is contrary to studies that have shown that allowing asylum seekers to pursue their case in the community is far more cost effective to taxpayers, and that 98 percent of mothers who have legal representation appear for their immigration court hearings after being released from detention.
Alongside longer detention times, there has been an alarming increase in the number of babies under the age of 18 months held in the family detention centers. For the past year, ICE asserted that pregnant women and those with infants younger than 18 months would not be placed in immigration detention. The CARA Pro Bono Project has noted a visible increase in breastfeeding infants at the Dilley family detention center since the start of the year.
Caring for an infant in detention places an increased emotional toll on the mother and has severely impacted access to legal counsel. Due to newly imposed restrictions on the number of children who can use the "nursery" at Karnes, mothers typically must bring their children to attorney meetings, leading to meetings either being cut short or mothers hesitating to disclose the details of the violence they faced to protect their children from further trauma.
Until family detention ends once and for all, DHS is free to backtrack on the few promises it has made in favor of families' well-being, such as decreased detention times and reprieve for babies under 18 months. This Mother’s Day, the Obama Administration and Department of Homeland Security should consider whether they would want their mothers, sisters, or babies to have to spend even one day in a detention center.