Family Detention Backgrounder

Family Detention Backgrounder

Detention Watch Network (DWN) opposes family detention. The detention of families is inhumane. The United States has failed to maintain detention facilities that comport with basic due process and human rights standards. Moreover, the use of family detention runs contrary to Congressional intent.

What is family detention?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), operates a sprawling system of over 250 immigration detention facilities, costing taxpayers over $2 billion annually. ICE detains mothers and children apprehended along the U.S. border and within the interior of the country in family detention centers. ICE has family detention standards. However, ICE’s detention standards are not codified, meaning they do not have the force of law and do not confer a cause of action in court. Moreover, family detention facilities – like all ICE detention centers – are subject to minimal independent oversight and accountability to ensure compliance with standards.

Family detention is operated by ICE, not HHS or CBP.

Generally, when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehends families and/or children at the border, [CBP places] these migrants [in] CBP holding cells. Children arriving at the border alone (other than children from Mexico) must be transferred into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS).

However, not all children arriving at the border are unaccompanied. Children apprehended at the border with a parent are arbitrarily transferred to ICE custody in family detention facilities. Infants and mothers with legitimate asylum claims are detained. Families arriving at the border are seeking safety or protection from violence and consist of women with young children, including infants and toddlers. However, family detention may not be limited to families apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border; it includes families apprehended in the U.S. and can include mentally ill individuals and pregnant women.

Detention is psychologically damaging and completely inappropriate for children. Studies conducted by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, New York University’s Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture, and Physicians for Human Rights demonstrate that detention poses a serious threat to the psychological health of detained immigrants and further aggravates isolation, depression, and mental health problems associated with past trauma.

During the summer of 2014, ICE implemented a “no bond” policy, circumventing the rights to liberty and due process, impeding access to attorneys, and making it easier to rapidly deport detained families with legitimate asylum claims.

Has the United States always detained families?

No. In 2001, the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began detaining families at Berks (96 beds) in Leesport, Pennsylvania. From 2006 to 2009, ICE also operated the 512-bed T. Don Hutto Correction Center (Hutto) in Taylor, Texas as a family detention center.

Prior to the opening of Hutto, ICE was placing children in ORR shelters and separating them from their parents, who were sent to immigration detention centers.(1) This resulted in the forced separation of parents from their children, which unlawfully rendered the children unaccompanied. After learning about this practice, Congress directed DHS to stop separating migrant families.(2) In response, DHS expanded family detention and opened Hutto in 2006.

However, the practice of detaining families in jail-like settings is contrary to Congressional intent, which indicates a desire to end, not expand, family detention. Congress reaffirmed its intent in 2007, expressing its alarm over the use of family detention.(3) In 2009, ICE closed Hutto (more below).

The expansion of family detention is also inconsistent with our international obligations to protect the rights of vulnerable migrants and to avoid detention as deterrence for migration.

ICE’s failed attempts to detain families on a mass scale make it clear that family detention is inhumane.

In 2006, ICE opened Hutto, a former medium-security prison built by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison corporation that is one of the major companies operating nearly 60% of immigration detention beds today. ICE insisted that Hutto was specially equipped to meet the needs of families. However, reports emerged that children as young as eight months wore prison uniforms and jumpsuits, lived and slept in locked prison cells with open-air toilets, families were subject to highly restricted movement and threatened with family separation if children cried or played too loudly. Medical treatment was wholly inadequate, infants lost weight due to poor nutrition, and children received only one hour of education a day.

In 2009, ICE stopped using Hutto to detain families after public opposition and a lawsuit highlighting that conditions were entirely inappropriate for children and families. The administration also withdrew plans for three new detention facilities. Contrary to concerns at the time – which echo concerns from Congress and the administration today – family arrivals did not increase directly following the end of family detention at Hutto.

DHS is legally mandated to place families with children in the least restrictive setting possible. In 1996, a settlement in Flores v. Reno, No. CV 85-4544-RJK (Px) (C.D. Cal. 1988) (Flores settlement), set forth a policy for all children under the age of 18 in government custody. The Flores settlement mandates that the government “release a minor from its custody without unnecessary delay” as long as detention is not required to ensure a child’s appearance in immigration court or for safety reasons. This settlement and other legal precedents demand that the government actively and continuously seek the release of each child in custody. Since the government has often failed to comply with these requirements, Congress has passed legislation multiple times to reform the immigration system as it applies to children. The government’s failed record in complying with legal obligations makes clear that family detention is not a viable option.
What should the U.S. government do?

  • Close Artesia and Karnes and stop the plans to open Dilley. We risk repeating the mistakes from Hutto if the administration continues rapidly expanding family detention and without any real input from communities and NGOs.
  • Reject the use of detention as a tool for reducing migration. Detention runs contrary to our values of basic dignity, due process, and human rights. Detained families are seeking protection from sexual assault, trafficking, and violence; our default should not be to put toddlers in prison without the opportunity for humanitarian parole or release.
  • End the no bond and high bond policies for detained families. The administration and ICE must also demonstrate a real commitment to individualized assessments that also support release, humanitarian parole, and alternatives to detention. The President’s supplemental request sought $879 million for 6,350 family detention beds. Rather than incarcerating families, funds can be better used to support ORR and refugee resettlement programs already in use.
  • Additionally, alternatives to detention must include case managers or social workers. Children and families require specialized medical, educational, and legal support that incarceration cannot provide.
  • Detention prohibits due process by cutting off access to legal support that families need to navigate immigration laws that have been compared in complexity to the U.S. tax code. For families without housing, the government can partner with non-profits and child welfare organizations experienced in supporting asylum-seekers.
    1 For more details and the history of family detention, please see Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families, an extensive 2007 report by the Women’s Refugee Commission and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
    2 House Committee on Appropriations, Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, 2006: report together with additional views (to
    accompany H.R. 2360), 109th Cong., 1st Session, 2005, H. Rep. 109-79.
    3 House Committee on Appropriations, Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, 2007: report together


    Family Detention Facilities at a Glance

    Berks (Pennsylvania)

    • 96-bed facility that ICE plans to double by 2015

    Artesia (New Mexico)

    • 672-bed facility that opened on June 27, 2014
    • 200 miles from the closest major city
    • The average age of a child is 6 years old.
    • Families are held in hastily converted trailers in a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC)
    • Known as a “deportation mill” and the subject of a lawsuit and reports (including by DWN and its members) of abuse and lack of due process

    Karnes (Texas)

    • 532-bed facility; a former all-male ICE detention facility converted into a family detention center and opened on Aug. 1, 2014
    • In Oct. 2014, two complaints were filed on conditions and sexual assault by guards who threatened and bribed detained women
    • Run by GEO Group, a private prison corporation

    Dilley (Texas)

    • In Sept. 2014, ICE signed a contract with the city of Eloy (in Arizona) to employ Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison
      company, to construct Dilley (in Texas)
    • At 2,400 beds, at a cost of $300 per person/day, it will be the largest and most expensive ICE detention center in the country
      Nearly 100 miles from the closest major city
    • Family detention has radically expanded by 1200% from June 2014 to August 2014 alone.

    Detention Watch Network
    Expansion of Family Detention Facilities in 2014 Detention Watch Network


     For more information, please contact:   Silky Shah, [email protected]


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