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Bait-and-Switch: As One Family Detention Center Closes, Another Opens

Andrea L. Alford,
Media Strategist,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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December 23, 2014

When we arrived at the U.S. border, I felt relieved because I thought we were finally safe. But immigration officials took my daughter and me to a place out in the middle of nothing in Artesia, New Mexico, where we were housed in trailers surrounded by barbed wire fences and cut off from the rest of the world. I only wanted to keep my daughter safe, that’s why I came to the United States. But I couldn’t keep her safe, not when we were locked away for months on end in a place that is bad for children. I understand that immigration officials need to have a system for keeping track of asylum seekers like my daughter and me while we wait for our legal hearings, but I don’t think putting us in jail is the right way to do it. Why are we punishing children who have done nothing wrong? The only thing we have done is seek a safer, happier place for our children. Wouldn’t any mother do that for her children?

— Former Detainee in Artesia

Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it was closing the controversial family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. However, only a month later, the South Texas Family Residential Center opened quietly.

The closure of Artesia as the Dilley, Texas, facility opens is a clear bait-and-switch. As relieved as we are that mothers and children will no longer be held at Artesia – a 700-bed facility in the middle of the desert where repeated violations of human rights and due process occurred – the opening of Dilley signals a ramp up, not a reduction, in family detention.

The Dilley facility – which will have 2,400 beds when fully operational – will be the largest immigration detention facility in the country, incarcerating mostly kids and their mothers who are fleeing extreme violence in Central America and rushing them through the deportation process without due process. The Obama administration adopted this “aggressive deterrence strategy” following this summer’s increase in mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America. That’s right: the administration has put mothers and kids with legitimate claims to asylum behind bars as a warning to other migrants not to come here seeking refuge.

Just as the Obama administration has moved to make our immigration system more humane and protective of family values by deferring the deportation of immigrants whose families would be split up, it has doubled-down on the mass detention of mothers and children. The president specifically said in his speeches announcing executive action to defer deportations that his administration does not believe in deporting families. Except these mothers and children fleeing violence, it seems.

The regional refugee crisis in Central America demands a humanitarian response by the United States, not deterrence by detention. These mothers have faced unimaginable suffering and danger and have come to the U.S. seeking protection, often with close relatives in the U.S. who are willing and able to provide for them. They are not evading law enforcement; they are seeking out Border Patrol agents.

The evidence is undeniable that many of these families qualify for protection under U.S. law. Extremely high percentages of these detained mothers and children have been granted asylum by immigration judges or been found to have a credible fear of persecution by asylum officers.

The ACLU filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit last week to challenge the Obama administration’s shameful policy of locking up asylum-seeking mothers and children. Each family named in the lawsuit was found by an immigration officer or judge to have a credible fear of persecution. Yet, instead of letting these families stay with their relatives or sponsors as they await their asylum hearings, which the Department of Homeland Security has typically done, the agency now categorically detains and denies them release on bond or other alternatives to detention that are cost-effective and efficient.

Locking up mothers and children anywhere is not a justified method to deter others from attempting a journey that may be necessary to save their lives. This rhetoric belies our nation’s legal obligation to protect asylum seekers and Americans’ sense of compassion. If the public scandal and ACLU lawsuit that ended family detention at the T. Don Hutto facility in 2009 has demonstrated one thing, it’s that immigration jails are a wholly inappropriate place for children and their mothers.

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