WASHINGTON -- Top Democratic senators wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Thursday to question his department's massive expansion of immigrant family detention, a practice that allows women and children seeking asylum to be locked up and potentially puts them at risk of abuse.
"Mothers and their children who have fled violence in their home countries should not be treated like criminals," reads the letter, which was signed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
"The ongoing detention of women and children who have made credible claims that they have been victims of those very crimes is unacceptable," the senators said.
In response to an influx of both unaccompanied minors and families entering the country illegally over the past year, the government has ramped up its detention of families, largely mothers with children. Border patrol agents apprehended more than 68,000 family units at the southwest border during the 2014 fiscal year, up from nearly 15,000 the year before.
Earlier this year, there were fewer than 100 beds available in family detention centers, which were largely shuttered near the beginning of President Barack Obama's term after numerous reports of abuse.
But the government has since expanded its detention capacity for families. Some mothers and children have been sent to a facility in Artesia, New Mexico, that can hold up to 700 women and children. Others are being housed in a facility in Karnes City, Texas, that can hold up to 532 detainees.
Now, the government plans to open a facility in Dilley, Texas, by November that could eventually house up to 2,400 women and children.
The number of families being apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped, but the government is still planning to increase its family detention capacity substantially.
Johnson said last week that he believes "it's necessary to build more of that capability in the event we have another spike like we had last summer."
Immigration advocates have raised concerns about the use of family facilities, including the general principle of detaining women and children who may have fled abuse or violence in their native countries and are now seeking asylum. Advocates argue they could instead be released on bond or given ankle bracelets, as they were previously.
Keeping women and children in detention could make it harder for them to seek legal counsel, since the facilities are all at least an hour away from major cities, and could put them at risk of sexual assault. Several groups filed a complaint earlier this month alleging sexual abuse at the Karnes City facility.
The senators expressed many of the same concerns, arguing that if more beds are available, officials will be more likely to hold mothers and children who might have otherwise been released. The decision to build a new facility, they said, "threatens to make permanent a practice of presumptive detention for families and marks a reversal of this administration’s family detention policy."
"We fear that the result will be the ongoing detention of asylum-seeking women and children who have shown a credible fear of being returned to their home country and pose no flight risk or danger to the community," the senators added. "We are particularly concerned with the negative consequences of long-term detention on the physical and mental well-being of young children."
Marsha Catron, a DHS spokesperson, said Johnson will respond directly to the senators. She said in a statement that the "residential centers for adults with children help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States."
Catron also said the facilities makes custody decisions on a case-by-case basis.
"ICE's residential centers for adults with children are an effective option to maintain family unity as these individuals await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries," she said.
Read the full letter from the Democratic senators:
October 16, 2014
Dear Secretary Johnson:
We recognize that responding to the drastic increase in unaccompanied immigrant children on our Southern border presents significant challenges to the administration, but we are nonetheless deeply concerned by the decision to build a large new immigration detention facility for women and children in Dilley, Texas. This decision threatens to make permanent a practice of presumptive detention for families and marks a reversal of this administration’s family detention policy. We fear that the result will be the ongoing detention of asylum-seeking women and children who have shown a credible fear of being returned to their home country and pose no flight risk or danger to the community. We are particularly concerned with the negative consequences of long-term detention on the physical and mental well-being of young children.
The decision to construct this new 2,400 bed facility – what will be the largest immigration detention facility in the country – stands in contrast to the principles this administration embraced just five years ago when it stopped detaining families at the Hutto facility in Texas and set aside plans for three new family detention facilities. At the time, John Morton, then Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stressed the importance of reforming the detention system so that detention is “done thoughtfully and humanely” and observed that the system’s purpose was to remove immigration violators from the country, not imprison them. Recent plans to expand the family detention system represent a marked departure from these objectives. Since the administration reinstituted this summer what we then believed to be a temporary family detention policy using facilities in Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes, Texas, we have heard significant concerns regarding the conditions of confinement and obstacles to due process for detainees. We are troubled by your apparent decision to make permanent and greatly expand the policy of family detention against the backdrop of these problems.
We are also troubled by the decisions that are helping drive the demand for additional family detention beds, particularly the administration’s current practice of seeking expedited review and detention for all mothers and children arriving from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, regardless of their individual circumstances and asylum claims. It appears that the dominant question officials ask before detaining these families is whether there is available bed space, and if 2,400 more beds become available, the answer to that question will increasingly be yes. This is a significant shift from the policy pursued until just recently, where families were only held when they were unable to find suitable housing outside a detention facility or where there was a serious public safety or flight risk.
The administration’s practice of opposing bond in all of these cases, even those cases in which credible fear has been established and where there is no evidence of danger to the community or risk of flight, furthers the injustice for those families detained and unnecessarily increases the demand for bed space. Concerns over flight risk can be ameliorated through Alternatives to Detention (ATD), which help ensure the appearance of asylum seekers in immigration proceedings and are more cost effective.
The rushed nature of expedited review has led to indications that the due process rights of these women and children are being denied and that those with valid claims for asylum may be removed to countries where they could be at risk of persecution. These problems are exacerbated by the obstacles to meaningful access to counsel for families being held in often-isolated detention centers.
We appreciate the administration’s efforts to improve conditions at existing family detention facilities. However, the problems that have been documented are indicative of a system that is not working. In the long run, the best way to protect both border security and due process is to implement an immigration detention system that prioritizes public safety risks based on individualized case-by-case review.
Mothers and their children who have fled violence in their home countries should not be treated like criminals. They have come seeking refuge from three of the most dangerous countries in the world, countries where women and girls face shocking rates of domestic and sexual violence and murder. Here in the United States, we have just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, a law we hold out as an example of our commitment to take these crimes seriously and to protect all victims. The ongoing detention of women and children who have made credible claims that they have been victims of those very crimes is unacceptable.
As outlined above, categorical family detention raises serious concerns. We urge you to reconsider this policy.
Patrick J. Leahy
Charles E. Schumer
Michael F. Bennet