December 2, 2009

XI. The Emotional Toll of Family Separation

The transfers are devastating—absolutely devastating. [The detainees] are loaded onto a plane in the middle of the night. They have no idea where they are, no idea what [US] state they are in. I cannot overemphasize the psychological trauma to these people. What it does to their family members cannot be fully captured either. I have taken calls from seriously hysterical family members—incredibly traumatized people—sobbing on the phone, crying out, “I don’t know where my son or husband is!”[187]

The detrimental effects of detainee transfers go beyond interference with the right to counsel and to fair and equal treatment before the courts. Since detainees are often transferred far away from their family members and communities of support inside the United States, their detention takes an enormous emotional and psychological toll. As described above, ICE does not inform family members about transfers, so relatives often undergo a great deal of stress until detainees can find a way to inform them of their new location. As one attorney said, “It’s scary for them, because the facilities just tell the families that [their relative has] been released. The facilities have no idea where they have gone, so neither do the families.”[188]

A clinical psychologist who treated immigration detainees in Arizona spoke with a Human Rights Watch researcher about the psychological effects transfers can have on detainees: “We’re talking about completely isolating people from anything that would be helpful to them.”[189] Because they often come from families with such little income, even phone calls are seen as a major expense and are rare.[190] The psychologist continued, “these people are already in a desperate place, and they are being separated from anyone who can be any kind of support to them.”

One 22-year-old Chinese detainee told Human Rights Watch that his transfer from detention in California to Texas had separated him from his mother, causing them both significant distress. She had been able to make the trip to Texas once during his five months in detention. Reflecting on that visit in a subsequent interview with Human Rights Watch, he said, “I made her hair turn from black to grey, and now it’s white.”[191]

Minor children and their parents often suffer acutely when they are separated by transfer, especially when the detained parent is sent to a location so far away that regular visits become impossible. As one detainee who was transferred from New York to New Mexico said, “Every time I manage to call, my two little girls are crying by the time we get off the phone. I can’t take it.”[192]

A spouse of a detainee wrote:

I am an American Born Citizen married to [name redacted] for 23 years with five children, one of which is currently serving our country in Kuwait. My husband is currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania which is 750 miles away from Georgia where I am living.... I beg you to please help my children and I during this hardship. We have a 9 & 10 year old that are paying the consequences. They really need to be a part of their father’s life ... if there is anything you can do to try to help us bring [name redacted] to a closer distance we would greatly appreciate it.[193]

An attorney spoke about how difficult it is for detained mothers to be separated from their children after transfer:

It seems to me that there are so many unique issues with [detained] women. It’s a higher psychological toll to be separated from their children. It gets to the point where you cannot even communicate with your client at all [because they are so distraught]. With men, there’s definitely an impact, but with women it takes over their entire being. Anybody who works with women detainees who have been transferred away from children will tell you it’s so much more emotionally taxing for them.[194]

Transfer Devastates Mother Separated from Young Son

A clinical psychologist spoke to Human Rights Watch about an African woman who had been abused and tortured in her country of origin and who had also undergone female genital mutilation. After this abuse, according to the psychologist, she had developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, after immigrating to the US, “she turned her life around:” she had married and had a young son, and trained and ultimately became a nurse.[195]

While working in the hospital, however, she assaulted someone. The psychologist’s assessment was that an incident in the hospital triggered her PTSD just before the assault. While she was able to serve her criminal sentence in California in a prison near to her husband and young child who visited her regularly, she was subsequently detained by ICE and transferred.

As the psychologist explained:

Once ICE took her into custody she was immediately sent to detention in Florence, Arizona. There was no possible way for her husband and her young son to get to see her there. That was where I tried to work with her. It was terribly heart-wrenching for her to be detained so far away from her small child. She spent almost a year in detention fighting her deportation. During that time, she never saw her son, who lost a year of life with his mom from age four to age five. It was devastating for the entire family.[196]

Several attorneys reported to Human Rights Watch that the transfers of detainees away from family members wore down the detainees’ willingness to spend the time in detention necessary to pursue appeals of their cases. Eventually, many signed voluntary departure agreements.[197] As one attorney put it:

The primary impact of transfers is on the individual and their families. It’s just so devastating financially and emotionally. So many family members have told me that it’s like their [detained] relative is dead. As the length of time in detention goes on, everyone loses hope. There is an attrition rate in visits, and family just cannot keep up with the delays in the cases. They manage to get there for the first go-around, when they were supposed to be there, but then the government appeals, or there is a continuance, and it’s tough to keep coming back. What happens to the kids is the real tragedy.[198]

The sister of a detainee who was transferred from New York to New Mexico told Human Rights Watch:

Ever since they sent him there, it’s been a nightmare. My mother has blood pressure problems, and her pressure goes up and down like crazy now, because of worrying about him and stuff. [His wife] has been terrified. She cries every night. And his baby asks for him, asks for “Papa.” He kisses his photo. He starts crying as soon as he hears his father’s voice on the phone even though he is only one.... Last week [my brother] called to say he can’t do it anymore. He’s going to sign the paper agreeing to his deportation.[199]

Another attorney in Arizona said:

Number one thing is that their families can’t visit them.... It plays a big part in the morale of the detainee. It has to play with your mind. One of the thoughts that goes through everybody’s head is “why don’t I just leave and take the deportation?” The telephone is the other part of it ... their phone calls are subject to monitoring, and the calls cost so much from detention. It costs too much, especially when it is the breadwinner who is in detention.[200]

An attorney representing an individual from India, who explained that his client had been tortured prior to seeking asylum from persecution in the United States, spoke with Human Rights Watch just days after his client had been transferred away from his family in northern California to detention in Hawaii. The attorney explained:

What we see is that our client is emotionally devastated [by the separation from his family]. He is showing his willingness to drop his case. This is someone who doesn’t want to be sent to a place where he fears persecution and he wants to drop his case in the Ninth Circuit because he cannot bear the separation from his wife and children.[201]

This same detainee’s wife wrote to ICE:

I was born in 1971, and was married to [name redacted] on November 21, 2001. We have two US-born children. My husband has been in the custody of the ICE. I have recently learned that he has been transferred [to Hawaii from northern California]. This will cause unusual and undue hardship to me and my family. I am very attached to my husband and so are our children. We want to be able to see him as often as possible. Especially our six-year-old daughter has been visiting him on almost a weekly basis. We request that he would be transferred to a facility nearby....[202]

In our research, we did not come across a single case in which ICE had granted such a request.[203]


[187] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Rebecca Schreve, January 29, 2009.

[188] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Eleni Wolfe, January 29, 2009.

[189] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anne Wideman, licensed clinical psychologist, Maryland, January 29, 2009.

[190] Detainees and their attorneys reported paying between 75 cents and 3 dollars per minute for phone calls from detention centers in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Human Rights Watch interview with Jianyu C. (pseudonym), South Texas Detention Complex, April 25, 2008; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with JJ Rosenbaum, January 27, 2009.

[191] Human Rights Watch interview with Jianyu C., April 25, 2008.

[192] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Zubair A., February 11, 2009.

[193] Letter to J. Bauer, aide to Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, from [name redacted], May 7, 2004, forwarded to ICE by Mayra Sutton, caseworker for Governor Bush on August 26, 2004 (provided to Human Rights Watch by ICE in response to our FOIA request regarding detainee transfers) (letter on file with Human Rights Watch).

[194] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Holly Cooper, January 27, 2009.

[195] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Anne Wideman, January 29, 2009.

[196] Ibid. The woman described in this case study ultimately was granted relief from deportation and allowed to remain in the United States.

[197] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Rebecca Sharpless, November 8, 2007.

[198] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Holly Cooper, January 27, 2009.

[199] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Georgina V. (pseudonym), Brooklyn, New York, January 23, 2008.

[200] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Margarita Silva, January 29, 2009.

[201] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with attorney Muhammad Yunus, Jackson Heights, New York, January 29, 2009.

[202] Ibid. (letter read to Human Rights Watch researcher by Mr. Yunus).

[203] Letter from Immigration and Naturalization Service to family member, date redacted (“You have requested INS transfer your cousin to a facility closer to his family. Unfortunately, due to budgetary restrictions and lack of detention space, INS is unable to grant your request.”) (letter on file with Human Rights Watch); letter from US Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review to detainee, August 21, 2006 (“Sir, the Dallas Immigration Court does not have any control that has to do with transfers.”) (letter on file with Human Rights Watch); letter from Immigration and Naturalization Service to detainee, date redacted (“You have requested that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) exercise its discretion and allow you to transfer to another INS facility … The INS has no plans to transfer you to a different facility at this time.”) (letter on file with Human Rights Watch); letter from Immigration and Naturalization Service [sic: INS ceased to exist in 2003, yet this letter appears on INS letterhead and is dated 2008] to detainee, September 29, 2008 (“INS cannot transfer you to a different facility”) (letter on file with Human Rights Watch).