Elected officials join advocates' call to end, not mend family detention

Drawing by 8-year-old in family detention given to Rep. Roybal-Allard on recent Congressional tour

Last week, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a press release announcing a number of modifications to family detention. The announcement claims that the agency will do away with long-term detention in most cases and set “reasonable” bonds for families that pass credible fear examinations. Our take on this is expressed perfectly by our executive director, Bob Libal in Grassroots Leadership’s statement: “It is impossible to make family detention reasonable or humane. Mass family detention is an extremely recent development and is emblematic of our society’s rush to use incarceration as the solution to any difficult issue. The Administration ended mass family detention once in 2009, and they can and should end it again today.”


An outpouring of legislators, advocacy organizations, and faith groups also released statements that these changes are not sufficient, and that the only solution is to end the inhumane detention of asylum seeking mothers and children altogether. Here are excerpts from some of those statements:



Congress members:

“Seeing firsthand the conditions that women and children are forced to endure in family detention centers in nothing short of heartbreaking. The unnecessary human suffering at the hands of our government, and for the profit of the private prison industry, is wrong, and must stop without exception.
I understand that DHS is taking some initiative to soften this situation, but it doesn’t matter how gilded the cage might be, it’s still a cage – it’s still a
prison for women and children. DHS must recognize that these are people seeking asylum and refugee status in our country as our laws accommodate. They deserve to have their cases managed properly; to have access to legal support, supportive services and protection in light of their credible stories regarding the need for asylum as refugees.
Instead, a for-profit prison industry, contracted by DHS with minimal oversight and minimal accountability is turning a buck by imprisoning the most vulnerable among us. We must eliminate the monetary gain from this situation, and deal with it in a way that’s much more rational than what we’re doing now. Secretary Johnson has to understand that this is not something he can window dress – this fundamentally has to stop.”

-Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ) (view full article)

“Last month, I co-signed a letter to the Department of Homeland Security calling for the end of the presumptive detention of families. While these reforms are welcomed, ending family detention is the real answer.  The mass family detention of those fleeing violence and persecution is inconsistent with American values. ”

- Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) (view full statement)


“The Department of Homeland Security’s revised plan for family detention again fails to address the real issue. We must end family detention, not mend it.  Jailing children and mothers has devastating impacts on these families and in order to truly fix this problem we must implement more sensible, humane, and cost-effective alternatives to detention.  Our government must get out of the business of detaining families.”

- Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) (view full statement)


"We saw the negative and lasting effects of family detention after the embarrassing policy of Japanese internment during World War II, but unfortunately, our government failed to learn any lessons," Chu said. "Instead, we are recreating some of the worst aspects of those years."

- Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) (view full article)


"Let me just make clear: Our goal is to shut the facilities down. These kids, they shouldn't be in there. ... There is damage being caused to these kids that they're going to have to live with for the rest of their lives."

- Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) (view full article)


Advocacy and faith-based organizations:

“There is no justification, excuse, or reasonable argument to rationalize why children—accompanied or not accompanied by a parent—should be detained.”

- Annaluisa Padilla, AILA First Vice President (view full statement)


“Unfortunately, the secretary continues to express the administration’s belief that family detention can be justified and reformed. It cannot. Family detention is unjust, inhumane and incompatible with our nation’s values and our international obligations.”

- Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council (view full article)

The proposed reforms fail to recognize that seeking asylum in the U.S. is legal and an international right to ensure that innocent people are not deported to their countries of origin to be killed or harmed. "Asking for protection is not illegal,” [said Michelle Brané, Director of the Migrant Rights & Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission]. “Many of the children and families fleeing violence and arriving at our borders  have family in the United States. Rather than reuniting them, DHS is spending hundreds of millions of dollars detaining them in costly and inhumane facilities. There is no reason for them to remain in jail.”
Women’s Refugee Commission (view full statement)

It is not too late to end the policy of detaining families. It’s not too late to recognize that these are simply traumatized mothers and children who need our help. Detention is not the answer.

- American Gateways (view full post)


The U.S. government should not be locking up children and families in immigration jails, period. For an entire year, the government has violated the basic rights of mothers and children to apply for asylum, by locking them up without cause and at great expense, by prejudging their cases without fairly applying the law to individual circumstances, and by putting up barriers to legal counsel, when the stakes are life or death.

- ACLU (view full statement)


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.

- National Immigrant Justice Center (view full statement)


Family detention is an affront to human dignity. It is harmful to the physical and mental health of these mothers and their children, who come to the United States fleeing unspeakable violence and trauma to be isolated from the family or other emotional support they desperately need. There is simply no humane way to detain families.

- CLINIC (view full statement)

As detailed in the report and in prior Human Rights First recommendations, rather than continuing to detain women and children fleeing violence and persecution, the Obama Administration should:

  • End the detention of families and children;
  • End prolonged immigration detention and the use of prohibitively high bonds;

  • Support the use of alternatives to detention when additional support is needed to assure appearance, such as community-based case management programs, which are more humane and cost-effective;

  • Support staffing for the immigration courts and asylum office, as well as legal counsel for asylum seekers and other immigration detainees; and

  • Prevent improper denials of access to asylum.

“The bottom line is that sending women and children who are seeking asylum to immigration detention in the first place is harmful to the mental health of children and survivors of violence, out of step with America’s global leadership in protecting those fleeing persecution, and an exorbitant waste of money,” added [Human Rights First’s Eleanor] Acer. “The administration should simply end this flawed policy.”

- Human Rights First (view full statement)

No amount of structural reforms can make the incarceration of mothers with children morally acceptable. We need to examine the consequence of perpetuating this system, instead of finding ways to mitigate the public's outrage.

Sister Kathleen Erickson states, "It cannot be said strongly enough that 'detaining' mothers and children is wrong. I have talked with mothers who cannot stop crying, who speak of how their children have changed while being held in detention, who talk of not being able to erase the image of dead bodies of family members being carried out of their home killed in the violence in their country of origin, of death threats they too received. How can the United States continue to exacerbate their trauma by holding them in a place unsuitable for children, with no understanding of when they will be released?"

- Sisters of Mercy


"There is no justification for jailing mothers and children who come to our country seeking protection," says Brittney Nystrom, LIRS director for advocacy. "We will not be satisfied with changes or patches. This inhumane and damaging practice needs to end."

- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (view full statement)

The DHS statement did not detail how the department would address problems of high bonds that were keeping families in detention, or whether it would end the indefinite detention of families who were not seeking asylum. The statement repeatedly referred to the act of seeking asylum as “illegal migration,” which wrongfully suggests that those fleeing threats to their life or freedom are somehow acting illegally.
- Human Rights Watch (view full statement)