Today’s statement from U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson calling for “substantial” changes to family detention practices is a step in the right direction. The policy has potential to significantly reduce the long-term detention of families who have established their eligibility for protection under U.S. laws. If adequately enforced, the new policy could begin to roll back some of the more harmful effects of the careless and inhumane family detention system the Obama administration has built over the past 12 months.
However, the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy would still require some asylum seekers to pay bonds to be released, even though women and children who flee persecution rarely have access to such resources. Where families, who pose no flight risk, are unable to pay even the lowest bond amounts, the administration must offer other forms of release.
Since last summer, the U.S. government has increased the detention of mothers and children by more than 4,000 percent. Nearly all of these women and children are fleeing rampant violence and persecution in their home countries; 88 percent of families in detention have passed their preliminary screenings to demonstrate their fear of return to their home countries. Yet some have been detained for nearly a year as they await their asylum hearings. Studies have shown that even short detention stays cause long-term negative effects for children and trauma survivors.
We agree with Secretary Johnson that families must receive education about their rights and responsibilities in the U.S. immigration system. We also recognize, however, that the best way to ensure that families understand their rights and can participate in the asylum process is to provide them access to legal services. As long as the administration continues to hold immigrants in massive and remote detention centers such as those in Karnes and Dilley, Texas, mothers and children will continue to face significant obstacles in securing legal counsel.
NIJC will continue to monitor the administration’s use of immigration detention, including the bond amounts families are given and the number of people who are actually released under the new policy, and hold the administration accountable to protect the rights of all people who come seeking safety and security.