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Statement of Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director, National Immigrant Justice Center

CHICAGO – The National Immigrant Justice Center joins our colleagues at 231 immigrant and civil rights organizations in condemning the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) rapid expansion of its immigrant detention system. Twelve former immigration judges and members of the Board of Immigration Appeals also voice their deep concern in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, describing the agency’s actions as “fundamentally at odds” with our nation’s due process imperative.

In the past two weeks, news reports showed that the government expects to detain an average of 45,000 immigrants daily, an historic high and an increase of more than 7,000 since the start of President Obama’s administration. DHS’s explanation for this rapid expansion focuses on the men, women, and children fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and the hurricane in Haiti. In its rush to expand a troubled and excessive detention system, DHS officials say the government is “scraping the bottom looking for beds,” raising concerns that vulnerable people will be held in facilities that do not meet even minimal standards of safety and care. In fact, these concerns are already documented by reports that thousands of immigrants will soon be detained in private prisons in Ohio and New Mexico, including one with a history of questionable deaths and substandard medical care so severe the Bureau of Prisons terminated its contract with the jail.

In the final days of the Obama administration, DHS’s actions show a persistent reliance on a strategy of deterrence in response to a refugee crisis that demands a humanitarian response. Studies by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have shown that the majority of individuals fleeing Central America merit protection under refugee laws. As DHS leadership knows, mass detention of asylum seekers is against international human rights norms and is bad policy.

Indeed, DHS’s actions are contrary to its own experts. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) rushed contracting with two large private prisons comes right in the middle of an investigation into the agency’s reliance on the private prison industry, ordered personally by Secretary Johnson. This is not surprising given ICE’s rejection of the recommendations of its own Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers urging an immediate end to the agency’s practice of detaining families. Instead of carefully considering the Committee’s recommendations, ICE Director Sarah Saldaña stated that she had not read the report, would not consider it, and would “put it in a binder” for the next administration. Only weeks later, ICE announced renewal of its contract with the Corrections Corporation of America to continue detaining thousands of Central American mothers and children, including babies, in Dilley, Texas.

The mass detention of immigrants in private prisons and jails violates American traditions and our obligations under international human rights laws. Our government is tragically choosing to direct billions of taxpayer dollars to criminalize refugees and expand its abusive detention system. The United States has a tradition of welcoming people fleeing harm in a secure and humane way, and contributing to a comprehensive effort to address the violence that is forcing families to leave their homes. The administration should start by granting Temporary Protected Status to citizens of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and re-designating such status for Haitians. True detention reform must follow.

Read the letter from 230 civil and immigrant rights organizations.

Read the letter from 12 former immigration judges and Board of Immigration Appeals members.