The facts about family detention

A list of resources, facts, and media coverage on family detention

Last updated: February 29, 2016

No Sanctuary: Big Business and Family Detention from GrassrootsLeadership on Vimeo.

What is family detention?

Family detention is the practice of holding immigrant families, including children and babies, in prison-like detention centers with their parents. These detention centers are often operated by for-profit, private prison companies.  In 2009, Grassroots Leadership and our allies won a major victory when the Obama Administration announced that families would no longer be detained at the T. Don Hutto detention center, a private prison in Taylor, Texas.  The administration also announced that no new family detention centers would be opened. Only one family detention center remained in Berks County, Pennsylvania, with less than 100 total beds.   Since 2009, most families seeking asylum have generally not been detained while their asylum cases proceed through immigration courts.   

However, in 2014, the Obama administration announced that it would renew the mass detention of immigrant families.  A family detention center was opened in July at a law enforcement training center in Artesia, New Mexico.  The administration then announced that it would start detaining families at a GEO Group-operated facility in Karnes County, Texas and that it would expand the Berks County detention center.  In its supplemental appropriations request to Congress, the administration asked for funding for up to 6,300 family detention beds across the country.  

In August, Texans United for Families and Grassroots Leadreship announced the renewal of our campaign to end the shameful practice of locking up immigrant families once and for all.       

Resources to learn more about family detention:

What was family detention like at the T. Don Hutto detention center?

The T. Don Hutto detention center, a former medium security prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America, was the subject of lawsuits over the conditions that families and children faced inside. Reports emerged that children as young as eight months old wore prison uniforms, lived in locked prison cells with open- toilets, subjected 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. Medical treatment was inadequate and children as young as one lost weight. Below are resources developed that helped end the practice of detaining families at Hutto.  

Grassroots Leadership coverage of family detention:

Media coverage of family detention

  • The ACLU has also compiled a list of media coverage of family detention available to download here.
  • "Laura Lichter, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Lichter describes the court process in Artesia as a "shitshow" where judges won't let lawyers say anything during hearings, detainees who clearly deserve asylum are being denied, and no one will say what the legal basis is for judges and asylum officers' decisions. Here are nine of the biggest problems with the way the government's handling migrant families in Artesia, according to Lichter's account. "9 ways detaining immigrant families is turning into a 'shitshow'" August 6, 2014, 
  • "Last week I visited the [Artesia, New Mexico, family detention] center, previously a training facility for Border Patrol officers. What I saw revealed a deeply flawed approach, one that unjustly – and unnecessarily – prevents women and children from getting the protection they need and the fair process American ideals demand." "Immigrant families not treated properly." August 3, 2014, 

  • "The Obama administration is using a Bush-era decision by former Attorney General John Ashcroft to classify the flood of undocumented immigrants that have hit the southern border as a “national security threat” in an effort to deny them bond during immigration status hearings. Immigration attorneys said the argument, based on a 2003 decision by Ashcroft, has been employed against undocumented immigrant mothers with children being held at the Artesia, New Mexico, [family] detention facility." "Government Declares Undocumented Immigrant Child, Mother A 'National Security Threat.'Buzzfeed.comAugust 5, 2014,

  • "Immigration officials confirmed Friday they plan to start using the Karnes County Civil Detention Centersoutheast of San Antonio to help house growing numbers of immigrant families caught at the southwestern border. ... Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio immigration attorney, described Karnes as a 'detention center with a smiley face. From the outside, it looks like a high school. It doesn't have the same prison-like exterior that most detention facilities have. But make no mistake, it is a prison.'" "Feds will house immigrant families at detention center near San Antonio." July 18, 2014,
  • "The United States has a problem. We are addicted to incarceration. We lock up millions of our fellow citizens every year, at staggering financial cost. Now, in an unfortunate twist on a familiar vice, Congress is debating locking up even more people. Only this time, the plan is to incarcerate asylum seekers -- children and their parents, here seeking protection. This is what they call hitting rock bottom." "Family detention: A shame and a waste." August 1, 2014,

  • "Hundreds of migrant families who have entered the US from Central America are being held in detention while they wait to be processed. Over 600 people are being held in the main facility, in Artesia, NM. The government is working to deport these families as quickly as possible, in the hopes of sending a message that will deter more families from coming. That's raised concerns about whether they're getting due process in their immigration cases, or whether families whose lives might be in danger are being deported." "Inside the remote, secretive detention center for migrant families." July 24, 2014.

  • "A flood of families crossing the southwestern U.S. border illegally is prompting the Obama administration to revive a much-criticized detention program that previously led to children and their parents being held for extended periods of time in harsh prison-like conditions." "Flood of Immigrant Families at Border Revives Dormant Detention July 25, 2014,

  • "Seventy-two years ago, U.S. military officials labeled Japanese-Americans "an enemy race." Because they were Japanese-Americans, the government locked members of my family—along with many other men, women, and children—in prison camps behind barbed wire. That family history makes it especially painful for me to watch our country marching refuge-seeking Central American children and families down a similarly shameful path. Too often, the United States violates its principles in response to the vocal racism and xenophobia of some and the silence of too many who watch it happen." "Border Crisis Prompting New Xenophobic Drumbeat for an Old Disgrace—Detention Camps." August 6, 2014,

  • "Texas’ newest detention center for immigrant children and mothers opened last week in Karnes City, just 54 miles outside of San Antonio. But less than a week out, the facility’s already garnering scorn from immigration attorneys in Austin. Those attorneys – the same ones who helped shut down the troubled T. Don Hutto detention center north of Austin in 2009 – take umbrage with the fact that the Karnes facility is run by the GEO Group, a for-profit company with a less-than-impeccable reputation." "A Private Prison Group Runs Texas' New Immigrant Detention Center." August 6, 2014,

  • "After declaring the surge of Central American migrants crossing the border a humanitarian crisis, the Obama administration has shifted sharply to a strategy of deterrence, moving families to isolated facilities and placing them on a fast track for deportation to send a blunt message back home that those caught entering illegally will not be permitted to stay." "As U.S. Speeds the Path to Deportation, Distress Fills New Family Detention Centers." August 5, 2014,

  • "Ms. Lara Carballo’s case and others being heard here are changing the nature and purpose of a temporary detention center that the Obama administration set up in windowless barracks behind high fences for women and children caught crossing the border illegally. The plan was to hold the detainees briefly until they could be deported, sending a message to Central American families that illegal migrants would not be allowed to stay. But less than three months after it opened, an air of semipermanence is setting in. Modular units to be used as schoolrooms are rolling into the center, the parking lot has been paved and a barren sandlot is becoming a playground and soccer field." "In Remote Detention Center, a Battle on Fast Deportations." September 5, 2014, 

  • "Federal officials are planning a new for-profit family detention lockup for immigrant children and their parents in South Texas. The 2,400-bed “South Texas Family Detention Center”—as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is referring to it—is slated for a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio." "Feds Planning Massive Family Detention Center in South Texas." The Texas Observer. September 5, 2014,

  • "The center will open in early November and eventually be equipped to hold 2,400 people, according to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), making it vastly larger than the three other facilities of its kind, which currently hold approximately 1,300 people collectively. At full capacity, the center will cost $298 per resident per day, the agency estimates."  "New U.S. migrant detention center to be run by firm criticized by advocates" Reuters. September 23, 2014.

  • "Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, came to this South Texas outpost on Monday to open the country’s largest immigration detention facility and draw attention to border security measures that are part of President Obama’s fiercely debated executive actions on immigration...Standing on a dirt road lined with cabins in a barren compound enclosed by fencing, Mr. Johnson delivered a blunt message to families without legal papers considering a trip to the United States: 'It will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back.'" "Detention Center Presented as Deterrent to Border Crossings" New York Times. December 15, 2014.

  • "Karnes County Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of doubling the capacity of the U.S. government’s detention center for immigrant women and children from 600 to 1,200 beds. In return, the county will get $125,000 annually, more jobs at the center, and according to the GEO Group, $500,000 in additional tax revenue." "Karnes County approves family detention center expansion" KSAT. December 17, 2014.

  • "Last November, Obama added another executive action to extend similar protections to some undocumented parents. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” he said in a speech on Nov. 20. 'Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.' But the president’s new policies apply only to immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years; they do nothing to address the emerging crisis on the border today." "The Shame of America's Family Detention Camps" The New York Times Magazine. February 4, 2015.

  • "The US government recently began inflicting harsher penalties on undocumented immigrant families than it inflicts on individual undocumented immigrants, forcing all mother-and-child arrivals to spend months in for-profit family detention centers. Solo immigrants seeking asylum can pay bonds and pledge they'll show up to court cases — but last summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began denying mothers with children from bonding out of detainment." "Escaping into Prison: The Battle Over Immigrant Mothers and Children Detained by the US. March 5, 2015" Vice. March 5, 2015.

  • "The Obama administration continues to expand its controversial practice of detaining mothers and their children despite a judge’s order that using it to deter mass migration is illegal." "Private Prisons for Immigrant Families Grow Despite Court Ruling Against 'Detention as Deterrence'" DemocracyNow! March 25, 2015.

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