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The Honorable Chuck Schumer
Majority Leader
United States Senate
322 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Minority Leader
United States Senate
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House of Representatives
US House of Representatives
1236 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Kevin McCarthy
Minority Leader
US House of Representatives
2468 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, and Leader McCarthy:

I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to urge you to reduce funding for abusive immigration detention and enforcement activities, invest in the transformation of border reception toward a humanitarian model that respects human rights, and appropriate funding to secure accountability and redress for the inhumane and discriminatory immigration policies put in place by the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Recent appropriations during the Trump administration exacerbated the abuses of an immigration enforcement system that has long failed to protect the rights of immigrants in the United States. We urge Congress to set a new course by ensuring that Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations help to create a more rights-respecting system.

Reduce Funding for Abusive Enforcement

Immigration detention under the Trump administration grew unchecked, as 40 new detention facilities were opened between 2017 and 2020. These facilities severely limited detainees’ access to counsel, exposed them to inhumane medical and sanitary conditions, and were mostly located within the jurisdiction of one ICE field office where the chance of being released on parole was less than one percent.[1][2] Many of the issues documented by Human Rights Watch and other civil and human rights organizations in immigration detention have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fiscal Year 2020 saw the highest-reported death toll of immigrants under ICE custody in 15 years as 21 people died—up from 8 in FY2019[3]—and detention facilities failed to institute appropriate safety measures.[4]

Human Rights Watch has also found systemic poor treatment of immigrant children and women in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody held in holding cells that migrants call “hieleras” or freezers. Children in particular suffer from separation not only from parents, but also other caregivers, such as siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.[5] In 2019, CBP requested millions in supplemental funding for consumables and medical care for migrants in their care, claiming to be overwhelmed by the number of children and families coming to the US-Mexico border. The Government Accountability Office, however, found CBP mismanaged the funds and instead spent them on “items such as boats, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and dirt bikes.”[6]

The Trump administration claimed family separations were necessary in order to prosecute parents for immigration offenses, such as illegal entry and reentry under sections 1325 and 1326 of title 8 of the United States Code. Human Rights Watch has long documented the severe harms not only of these separations but also of the underlying prosecutions. Even prior to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, such prosecutions violated the rights of asylum seekers and the rights of all migrants to family unity.[7]

We urge Congress to:

  • Reduce funding for ICE and CBP detention;
  • Invest with additional funding to the Detention Case Management Pilot Program administered by the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, previously funded by $5 million in the FY 2021 bill;
  • Make no funding available to remove a child from a parent or legal guardian or primary caregiver; and
  • Make no funding available to conduct prosecutions for violations under 8 USC §§ 1325 and 1326.

Appropriate Funding for a Humanitarian Reception System

The Trump administration decimated the US asylum system at the southern border via deterrence-focused policies that turned away tens of thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers. Policies such as the Title 42 summary expulsion order, the Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACAs), and the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) have harmed women, children, and families,[8] forcing tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait for hearings in Mexico in dangerous conditions and to face processes that denied them a fair hearing.[9] Our research shows that the consequences of returning those in need of protection from danger can be catastrophic—resulting in sexual assault, torture, and death.[10]

We urge Congress to

  • Appropriate funding to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with community-based organizations and other civil society actors to build out a humanitarian reception system through temporary facilities that provide appropriate services, such as basic medical care, psychosocial support, orientation to legal responsibilities and rights, referrals to community-based case management services at destination cities, and facilitation of onward travel;
  • Direct DHS to expand access to child welfare and mental health professionals at the border who are better equipped than CBP agents to manage processing given the trauma experienced by asylum seekers and migrant children and families; and
  • Ensure adequate funding for safe, swift reunification procedures, starting from the moment children cross the border, to safeguard the right to family unity. 

Invest in Accountability and Redress

One of the lasting legacies of the administration of President Donald Trump is the harm and trauma inflicted upon thousands of immigrant children and families through its immigration principles and policies.[11] Asylum seekers who were turned away by anti-asylum policies should be paroled into the country and have access to fair asylum determination proceedings.

Congress should also take steps to further transparency and accountability within CBP and ICE, particularly with regard to CBP and ICE’s history of misconduct and excessive force incidents.

We urge Congress to:

  • Ensure sufficient funding to allow asylum seekers who were turned away by anti-asylum policies to enter the US in an orderly fashion and pursue their claims through a fair process.
  • Refocus funds cut from ICE and CBP enforcement budgets toward mechanisms for accountability and redress such as by:
    • Creating an NGO-CBP working group on stakeholder monitoring and access to CBP detention facilities;
    • Directing the DHS Office of Inspector General and the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to conduct a comprehensive review of CBP use of force policies;
    • Directing DHS to make public information on use of force incidents, including publicly sharing use of force incident reviews; and
    • Establishing an independent, civilian-led review of CBP and ICE disciplinary practices, including in response to suspected inappropriate behavior or policy deviations.

For all these reasons we urge you and all Members of Congress to decrease funding for enforcement, detention, and abusive policies and practices carried out by ICE and CBP, and instead to consider appropriations that would enhance transparency, due process, accountability, and further respect for the human dignity and rights of all people subject to DHS jurisdiction.


Nicole Austin-Hillery
Executive Director, US Program
Human Rights Watch

[1] American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and National Immigrant Justice Center, Justice Free Zones: U.S. Immigration Detention Under the Trump Administration (New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2020),

[2] Human Rights Watch, Code Red: The Fatal Consequences of Dangerously Substandard Medical Care in Immigration Detention (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018),

[3] Cato Institute, “21 People Died in Immigration Detention in 2020,” October 22, 2020, (accessed April 6, 2021).

[4] Doug Smith, “Federal judge orders COVID-19 testing at Bakersfield immigration detention facility,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2020, (accessed April 6, 2020); Jenny Gathright, “Inspection Finds ‘Systematic’ Failings In Farmville Immigrant Detention Center Response To COVID-19 Outbreak,” WAMU 88.5 American University Radio, September 10, 2020, (accessed April 6, 2020).

[5] Human Rights Watch, In the Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018),

[6] United States Government Accountability Office, Decision in the Matter of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—Obligations of Amounts Appropriated in the 2019 Emergency Supplemental, June 11, 2020 (accessed April 6, 2021).

[7] Human Rights Watch, Turning Migrants into Criminals: The Harmful Impact of US Border Prosecutions (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2013),  

[8] “US: ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program Harming Children,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 12, 2020,

[9] “Q&A: Trump Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” Program,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 29, 2020,

[10] Human Rights Watch, Delivered to Danger: United States Deportation Policies Expose Salvadorans to Death and Abuse (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2020)

[11] “Q & A: White House Immigration Principles and Policies,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 13, 2017,

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