The cover story in Sunday’s New York Times magazine tackled an issue that’s previously gone under the radar: the Obama administration’s illegal policy of detaining families with children who are seeking asylum in the United States.
Detention of children for immigration reasons is banned under international law, because it can cause them severe harm – from anxiety and depression, to long-term cognitive damage. That’s why it was laudable when the Obama administration decided in 2009 to end large-scale detention of unauthorized immigrant families.
But in a panicked response to a surge of Central American asylum seekers crossing the US-Mexico border last summer, the administration reversed itself, opening a new 700-bed family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico and announcing plans for another 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, Texas. The idea, administration officials said, was to deport families quickly rather than releasing them to attend a full hearing before the overloaded immigration courts, a process that was then taking up to two years and is now scheduling court dates nearly five years in the future. And part of the calcuation appears to have been that the threat of detention and deportation would deter asylum seekers. This was never likely to work: research shows that the prospect of detention does not deter people uprooting themselves and their kids who are fleeing for their lives.
As the New York Times reports, under US and international law it appears that many of the detained families have legitimate claims to protection in the US. (Human Rights Watch visited Artesia last July and spoke with mothers who told us they had fled Central America for their lives after suffering domestic violence or death threats from gangs.) But the government has opposed the release on bond of these asylum seekers while their claims are being processed, with the result that mothers and their children have been held for months, and may be held for years, while their cases proceed.
Obama recently requested funding for 2,760 new family-detention beds in fiscal year 2015 with the goal of pressing on with his policy. This, unfortunately, is not the way to address delays in immigration proceedings. Congress should reject Obama’s request and instead enhance the capacity of immigration courts and improve access to legal counsel to make the asylum process fairer and more efficient. Families with children should be released and provided post-release appearance support, which has been shown to be both cost effective and very successful in making sure immigrants show up for court.
By ending the practice – and mindset – of family detention, the US government can do what’s right both for the immigrants and for the country.