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June 15, 2015

U.S. Detention of Families Seeking Asylum

Executive Summary

On June 20, 2014—ironically, on World Refugee Day—the Obama administration announced its strategy for addressing the increase in families and children seeking protection at the U.S. southern border. Part of this plan: detain and quickly deport families from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in an attempt to deter more from coming. At the time, U.S. immigration authorities had fewer than 100 beds for detaining families with children, all in one facility in Pennsylvania. They quickly increased that number—first by using a makeshift facility in Artesia, New Mexico, then by converting a facility in Karnes County, Texas, and more recently, by opening a large facility in Dilley, Texas to hold up to 2,400 children and their mothers. All told, the administration’s plans would increase family detention by 3,800 percent to 3,700 detention beds for children and their parents.

One year later, as World Refugee Day 2015 approaches, the Obama Administration continues to send many mothers and children who fled persecution and violence in Central America into U.S. immigration detention. About five thousand children and mothers have been held in U.S. immigration detention since June 2014. Some have been held for nearly a year, and as of April 25, 2015, nearly one-third has spent more than two months in U.S. detention facilities. More than half of the children held in fiscal year 2014 were very young, from newborns to 6-year-olds.

The mothers and children held at these facilities face an array of obstacles, from a lack of access to counsel to the day-to-day trauma of detention. Medical and mental health experts report that detention damages the mental health of children, causing depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behavior. Medical professionals who have interviewed these mothers confirm that detention is harming their mental health, and several have reportedly attempted suicide. Many of the women are survivors of violence who are already suffering from the effects of prior traumas. At the 2,400-bed Dilley facility, mothers have reported that their and their children’s sleep is disrupted each night as officers come into their rooms each hour, shining flashlights and pulling blankets off faces to “count” each person.

Beyond the human cost, immigration detention is extremely expensive. In addition to the over $2 billion Congress spends each year on immigration detention (even mandating that the agency maintain 34,000 beds regardless of need), the administration requested, and in March Congress appropriated, an additional $345.3 million to fund a sharp increase in the number of mothers and children held in detention. Family detention costs, on average, $1,029 per day for a family of three. By contrast, community-based supervision or other alternatives to detention cost much less, from 17 cents to $17 dollars a day in some cases.

U.S. detention policies and practices relating to asylum seekers violate the nation’s obligations under human rights and refugee protection conventions. While the administration has characterized these women and children as “illegal” border crossers, seeking asylum is not an “illegal” act. In fact, the United States has a legal obligation to protect those seeking asylum, one rooted in conventions the United States helped draft in the wake of World War II. Many of these mothers and children are indeed refugees entitled to protection under our laws and treaty commitments. Earlier this year, 87.9 percent passed initial credible fear screening interviews, indicating that they have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum. When represented by quality pro bono counsel, many are able to prove their eligibility for asylum or other relief. For instance, about 77 percent of those represented by pro bono attorneys through the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) have been determined by U.S. immigration judges to be “refugees” entitled to asylum or other protection.

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