In June of 2014, the first and most remote Family Detention Center opened in Artesia. The move was a concerted effort by the Administration to deter the influx of mothers and children and unaccompanied minors from Central America fleeing violence, persecution and despair. The Administration’s premise: “deterrence of future economic migration.”
The response from advocates was speedy, forceful and determined. Hundreds of immigration lawyers, professors, interpreters, social workers, experts, and willing volunteers traveled to the isolated detention center and began the fight to end family detention. Their efforts were successful and Artesia closed in December of 2014 just six months after it opened.
The Administration however was not about to end this practice. It set up two more detention centers in Texas – Dilley and Karnes. Some of the women and children previously interned at Artesia were transferred to one or the other facility. Hundreds more were placed there. Advocates mobilized and efforts increased. The battle had just begun. The irrational and unreasonable obstacles the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) invented to prevent these women and children from having access to counsel demonstrated the absurd efforts the agency was willing to go through to keep this profitable machinery going. Yes – there is profit in detention. At the cost of approximately $350 per day, per person, being paid to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the enterprise of family detention is very profitable. So, from refusing entrance to women wearing underwire bras or limiting the ability of attorneys to bring in needed electronic devices, to refusing entrance to volunteers for no good reason, ICE tried to play every trick in the book – but advocates fought back and fought hard.
Meanwhile these women and children languished in prison, slowly breaking down when the hopes of freedom seemed bleak. Bonds were initially set unreasonably high, ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 – until again advocates pushed the agency back, successfully quashing the agency’s argument that these mothers and children were a result of “organized influx” and that “reports and rumors of successful entries could encourage further mass migration attempts.” The children were malnourished and the women depressed, living in this horrific place called a “Family Residential Center.” One woman attempted suicide; others went on a hunger strike.
Study after study demonstrates the long term psychological harm these young children will suffer from continued detention. In response to the loud, clear and powerful outcries from advocates, a statement from ICE appeared in the media earlier this week noting that: “Family residential centers are an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries.” AILA’s President Victor Nieblas replied quickly, “In all my 19 years of experience as an immigration attorney, I have never heard a federal agency rewrite history to this extent.” And that is precisely what the Administration and the Agency are doing: rewriting history to justify unconscionable action against asylum seekers, against victims of persecution, defenseless children and distressed mothers.
In the words of Winston Churchill: “never, never, never give up.” Volunteers, advocates, lawyers, experts have not given up and the walls of detention centers are coming down. The Department of Homeland Security’s Secretary Jeh C. Johnson released a statement on June 24, 2015 in which the agency finally acknowledges that “…long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued” and that the agency will discontinue invoking general deterrence as a factor in custody determinations in all cases involving families. That is a far cry from the agency’s initial position last year! The tide is turning, but the work is far from done. We must continue to articulate our message to #EndFamilyDetention. Secretary Johnson also announced the agency will conduct interviews to determine if the families have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution, and offer “reasonable and realistic” bonds or other terms of release for those who demonstrate such fear. These are concrete changes ICE must make in good faith.
We must remain vigilant; we must watch and make sure the changes Secretary Johnson has announced are actually implemented and followed through by ICE officers. But these changes are not enough. We will not stop until we have put an end to family detention. There is no justification, excuse, or reasonable argument to rationalize why children—accompanied or not accompanied by a parent—should be detained.
The war is ongoing, the battles are being won, the walls are coming down, and our mission is still clear: end family detention, once and for all.
Written by Annaluisa Padilla, AILA First Vice President
If you are an AILA member, paralegal, or translator, who wants to volunteer at a family detention center, please go to the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project page or feel free to contact Maheen Taqui at email@example.com – we could really use your help.
To watch videos of the volunteers sharing their experiences, go to this playlist on AILA National’s YouTube page. To see all the blog posts about this issue select Family Detention as the category on the right side of this page.