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Statement by Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director, National Immigrant Justice Center
 
Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) applauds the Obama administration’s announcement that it will change the landscape of family detention by routinely releasing asylum-seeking mothers and children from custody. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) never should have revived its failed family detention policy one year ago, this development marks an important step toward more humane treatment of refugee families.
 
With this announcement, DHS is implementing its June 24 statement, which acknowledged that detaining mothers and children is inhumane and unnecessary. DHS plans to minimize the length of time that asylum-seeking families spend in detention and improve their access to counsel and family support as they navigate the immigration court process. The new policy allows families to be released from detention on reasonable bonds or through alternatives to detention (ATDs) programs that mitigate flight risk.
 
These changes do not signal the end of family detention. DHS will continue to maintain thousands of detention beds for mothers and children, some of whom will experience prolonged detention if they cannot pass legal screenings verifying they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries. NIJC will monitor implementation of this announcement and the treatment of those families who remain in detention.  
 
NIJC knows first-hand how difficult it is for individuals to articulate the details necessary to establish credible fear under our nation’s complex asylum laws. These challenges are exacerbated when individuals are detained and do not have access to lawyers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has found that having early access to legal representation helps asylum seekers trust the legal system and comply with court appearances.   Funding for counsel is critical.
 
In compliance with U.S. and international law, NIJC calls on the administration to:
 
  1. End the unnecessary and arbitrary detention of women, men, and children
  2. Ensure access to counsel for those detained and not detained
  3. Develop funding streams for legal counsel
  4. Release individuals on their own recognizance whenever possible
  5. Implement the least restrictive alternatives to detention to avoid subjecting mothers, in many cases with very young children, to ankle monitors or unnecessarily frequent in-person reporting requirements

As a nation, we need to ensure that those fleeing danger have access to the protections to which they are entitled. Detaining them in remote areas of the country is not the solution. We can do better.