Family Detention

The unjust policy of locking up immigrant mothers with their children

Image credit: Steve Pavey

The United States should be a place of refuge for people around the world seeking a better life or who face violence, starvation, poverty, war, or persecution. Rather than providing protection and living up to our ideals, the United States detains parents and children seeking asylum in family detention centers.

Family detention is the inhumane and unjust policy of jailing immigrant parents with their children – including babies. Upon arrival in the U.S. families are locked up in detention centers, with little access to legal and social services, often experiencing widespread human and civil rights violations.

The government expanded the use of family detention in 2014 in an attempt to deter families seeking asylum from coming to the U.S. from Central America. This policy was implemented despite the U.S. having a direct hand in creating the violent and unstable conditions prevailing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador that are causing many to flee.

Image credit: Carly Pérez Fernández

Currently there are three immigration jails holding families: Berks Family Residential Center in Berks County, Pennsylvania (Berks), Karnes Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas (Karnes) and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas (Dilley). Prior to 2014, the Obama administration had ended large-scale family detention in Texas, with Berks being the only family detention center in operation. By the end of 2014, Karnes and Dilley had opened while a fourth facility, the Artesia Family Residential Center in New Mexico, had both opened and closed amongst a firestorm of criticism. (See our report: Expose & Close Artesia Family Residential Center, New Mexico)

The alarming rise of family detention has been met with the increasing demand for an end to the policy altogether. In 2015 a federal court ruling called on the government to release children with their mothers from family detention. Judge Dolly Gee found the current practice in violation of the Flores Settlement, an agreement that set the standard for the detention and treatment of immigrant children in the U.S. since 1997.

In 2017, the Trump administration began separating families seeking asylum in order to continue detaining migrant parents. This was intended to punish parents and coerce them into abandoning their asylum claims. Amid public outcry against the cruel practice, the administration ended its large-scale family separation policy in June 2018, though the practice still continues in smaller numbers today. In May 2019, ICE looked to expand this practice once again by forcing detained parents into a false  choice of remaining in detention indefinitely with their children or relinquishing custody so their child can be released without them. Family detention is not the solution to family separation.

Family detention, like all immigration detention, is on the wrong side of history. The current family detention program is the largest since the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s with a combined capacity for over 3,000 people. The government’s policy of locking up parents and children is inhumane and unjust. Family detention must end immediately.


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