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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit challenging the Obama administration's policy of locking up asylum-seeking mothers and children to intimidate others from coming to the United States.
The case was brought on behalf of mothers and children who have fled extreme violence, death threats, rape, and persecution in Central America and come to the United States for safety. Each has been found by an immigration officer or judge to have a "credible fear" of persecution, meaning there is a "significant possibility" they will be granted asylum.
Yet, instead of releasing these families as they await their asylum hearings, which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has typically done, the agency now categorically detains and denies their release on bond or other conditions. The Obama administration adopted this policy — "an aggressive deterrence strategy" — following this summer's increase in mothers and children coming to the United States.
"Locking up families and depriving them of their liberty in order to scare others from seeking refuge in the U.S. is inhumane and illegal," said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "The government should not be using these mothers and their children as pawns. They have already been through devastating experiences, and imprisoning them for weeks or months while they await their asylum hearings is unnecessary and traumatizing."
The Obama administration's blanket no-release policy is a violation of federal immigration law and regulations, as well as the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibit the blanket detention of asylum seekers for purposes of general deterrence, the complaint charges.
The lawsuit aims to invalidate that policy and ensure that the families’ cases receive individualized reviews. Asylum-seeking mothers and children are being detained at facilities across the country, in places such as Karnes, Texas, and Berks County, Penn. The nation's largest family detention facility just opened in Dilley, Texas.
"I worry that every day my family is kept in prison it adds to the trauma that my children feel. They saw so much violence in El Salvador, and now they are locked up here where they cannot feel safe and get better. I hope that we can be released soon so that I can help them recover from everything they have experienced," said lead plaintiff "RILR," who has been locked away in detention with her two children.
Plaintiffs in this case — all of whom have cleared credible-fear screenings — include:
- A mother who, along with her son, fled from Honduras after years of physical abuse at the hands of her son’s father. After he raped her, she escaped with the help of members of her church. However, DHS has refused to release the mother and son to live with their family in the U.S. while their asylum case proceeds.
- A mother who fled El Salvador with her 5-year-old and 8-month-old daughters to escape brutal and unrelenting abuse by the children's father. She and her daughters are being further traumatized because they are locked up in detention as they await their asylum hearing, even though they have a U.S.-citizen relative who has offered to support them and provide the care the family needs.
- A Salvadoran woman who, with her young son and daughter, escaped to the United States after her common-law husband physically abused her and threatened to kill her children. They are now languishing in detention awaiting an asylum hearing, even though they could stay with her mother who lives and works in Texas.
The case, RILR v. Johnson, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Co-counsel are the ACLU's Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the ACLU of Texas, the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law at Austin, and Covington & Burling LLP.
The complaint is available at: https://www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/rilr-v-johnson-complaint
More information is at: https://www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/rilr-v-johnson