Claire R. Thomas is an attorney and adjunct professor interested in migration, statelessness, human rights, and empowerment for women and girls facing poverty and gender-based violence. Based in New York City, Thomas advocates for immigrant children facing deportation from the United States as an attorney with the Safe Passage Project and teaches at New York Law School.
Over the past 30 years, immigration detention in the United States has expanded significantly. In 1994, there were less than 7,000 individuals detained every day in immigration detention facilities, by 2012, over 34,000 persons were detained on a daily basis. These detention facilities range from spaces at county jails to large private facilities. Immigration detention in the United States is a for-profit industry, with a daily “bed quota” mandated by Congress. Over 400,000 immigrants are detained annually, and an increasing number are young women detained with their children in facilities called “Family Residential Centers” near the southern border of the United States with Mexico.
The detention of immigrant family groups is not a new phenomenon, as a facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania has operated to detain immigrant families since 2001. However, the increasing use of detention for families, including very young children, began during summer 2014 when groups of women and children, along with unaccompanied children from Central America, migrated to the United States in increasing numbers. In response, the Obama Administration hastily created a detention facility with bed space for 700 persons in Artesia, a town in rural New Mexico, which was later closed for due process violations. By August 2014, another facility opened in Karnes, Texas followed by a third facility in Dilley, Texas, approximately 80 miles southwest of San Antonio. Unsurprisingly, given that families with children continue to flee deteriorating conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to seek safety and basic dignity in the United States, profits are increasing for the private corporations which run these detention facilities.
At the South Texas Family Residential Facility in Dilley, Texas, which has bed space for 2,400 individuals, an increasing number of detainees are children. In fact, the children detained in this facility are very young. The CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a legal representation and advocacy organization created through a partnership of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), the American Immigration Council, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), reports that “of the estimated 1,046 children held in Dilley in April, 96 were infants and toddlers under the age of 2.”
Further, the CARA Project reports that, “While the overall population of children tripled between January and April 2016, the number of children under age 2 increased by 3,100 percent during that time.”
There are a large number of babies learning to walk and talk behind the bars of a detention facility.
To be clear, the immigrant children and their mothers detained at such “Family Residential Centers” are not charged with any crime. They are detained because they expressed a fear of returning to their countries of origin when they arrived at a port of entry or the southern border of the United States. As a result, the family groups are detained pending a credible or reasonable fear interview with an Asylum Officer from the Department of Homeland Security.
In the summer of 2015, a federal judge found that the Flores Settlement, which created a nation-wide policy for the detention, treatment, and release of minors in the custody of U.S. immigration officials, also applies to children in these “Family Residential Centers.” However, despite the judge’s order, immigrant children continue to learn to walk and talk in detention facilities. In fact, despite numerous human rights issues including substandard medical care and sexual assaults of detainees, the detention facilities in Berks, Dilley, and Karnes have all applied to state authorities to become licensed child-care providers. While Karnes received its license, a Texas judge declined to grant a childcare license the facility in Dilley and the center in Berks has lost its license without a clear plan to reapply.
Numerous studies have shown that detention is damaging both adults as well as children, especially those who have suffered trauma. Detention impacts children’s developmental and physical health and can lead to weight loss, anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation, detachment and hopelessness. Advocates and news reports depict the horrors of these Family Residential Centers, including prison-like conditions, sexual assaults of mothers in front of their children, and inadequate medical care.
Alternatives to the detention of immigrant families exist and are humane and cost-effective. Warehousing mothers and children in remote locations without attorneys or social services providers, is not the answer. Learning to walk in a detention facility is not a childhood. Detention is no place for children.