A disappointing decision by the Obama administration was announced Friday morning in response to a recent influx of Central American migrants crossing through the Southwest border, many of them children. According to officials, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will seek to detain more of these individuals and accelerate their cases in immigration courts to speed up their deportations. Immigration judges and officers will be temporarily reassigned to the Rio Grande Valley, the area that has experienced the majority of the influx.
In the meantime, DHS is rushing to open additional family detention centers, the type of facilities that had been all but eliminated with the end of family detention at the controversy-ridden T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.
These developments come after photos released a week ago by the office of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) provoked outcry with their depiction of the deplorable conditions experienced by those being held in a McAllen, Texas processing center. The pictures showed small, crowded rooms holding dozens of people, many of whom were toddlers and infants. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is investigating reports that minors are being mistreated in the facilities. Unfortunately, with the push to open more family detention centers, the current conditions have little hope of improvement.
Currently, the sole family detention center that ICE maintains is the Berks Family Detention Center in Leesport, PA. However, with the rush being put on the opening of these new centers, possible benefactors will be private prison companies, which have been known to begin building facilities in anticipation of securing future government contracts. These companies are also notorious for the inadequate living conditions and care they provide.
The T. Don Hutto Detention Center, where ICE detained families from 2006 to 2009, became a national embarrassment. The facility was and continues to be operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, though today it holds only women.
Although DHS claimed the Hutto center was specially equipped to meet the needs of families between 2006 and 2009, reports emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked in prison cells with open-air toilets, were denied adequate food, subject to highly restricted movement, and threatened with alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats of separation from their parents if they cried too much or played too loudly. The Hutto detention center was the subject of a lawsuit, a human rights investigation, multiple national and international media reports, and a national campaign to end family detention.
Despite the federal government’s interventions, those on the ground have a different perspective, “Quite frankly, the biggest impact has been the message that’s being sent out to the rest of the world, actually, to the rest of the United States,” said Oscar Montoya, Hidalgo County’s director of emergency management, “We’re not being overrun by anything. We’re not being attacked by anything. We have a humanitarian crisis going on.”
Montoya’s comments speak to the need for government officials to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what is causing this increase in immigration and steering away from rash decisions that would only bring about further human rights violations.
Bringing back family detention is a major setback. Instead of locking up families and children, we should instead turn to community support programs and assign social workers to manage families’ cases.