AUSTIN – A broad coalition of more than 65 national, state, and local immigrant, civil rights, and faith organizations today called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to end the practice of detaining immigrant families, including small children and infants.
In an open letter to ICE director John Morton, the groups urge ICE to prioritize release and alternatives to detention for immigrant families awaiting asylum or immigration hearings. ICE has issued a Request for Proposals for 100 new family detention beds in Texas in a closed, secure facility. The new detention center would replace the Berks County Family Shelter Care Center in Pennsylvania, which will be closed in March.
“In the last 10 years, our government has created a large-scale immigration lock up system that pulls in thousands of the country’s most vulnerable, including asylum seekers and families with children, at enormous cost to the U.S. taxpayer,” said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas. “Putting innocent children in jail is not just bad policy – it is inhumane and un-American, and it is time for the government to stop.”
The current Request for Proposals seeks submissions for closed, secured facilities. A 2007 report by the Women’s Refugee Commission and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service that examined the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas and the Berks facility concluded that both facilities place families “in facilities modeled on the criminal justice system, with little regard to national and international standards for the care and protection of children and families.”
The Hutto detention center, where ICE housed families from 2006 to 2009, became a national embarrassment as reports emerged that children as young as eight months old were forced to wear prison garb, locked in prison cells, denied adequate food, and threatened with 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.
“We are acutely disappointed in the Obama Administration for continuing the needless detention of families,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership. "The Obama Administration took positive steps in rolling back family detention in 2009 by releasing families from the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Taylor, Texas, and canceling a solicitation for three new family detention centers," the signatories wrote to ICE. "The closure of the Berks facility is an excellent opportunity for the administration to continue to demonstrate its commitment to detention system reform by ending the practice of detaining families for once and for all."
"We call on the administration to prioritize release of immigrant families in all cases. We urge the administration to assign social workers to manage families’ cases rather than placing them in detention. For families without housing, the administration should partner with non-profit shelter or child welfare organizations experienced in supporting asylum-seeking and immigrant families to resolve any issues preventing the direct release of families. Social workers with proven track records providing family and child welfare services offer the only appropriate expertise for supporting families in civil immigration proceedings."
"Most of these families are asylum seekers or victims of violence. They are very vulnerable and often have no place to go.NGO's are willing to work with ICE to develop shelter options that are both humane and more cost effective than closed detention," says Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission.
Signatories to the letter include American Civil Liberties Union, America’s Voice Education Fund, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Center for Constitutional Rights, Detention Watch Network, DreamActivist.org, Grassroots Leadership, Human Rights First, Human Rights Defense Center, Justice Strategies, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, National Immigration Forum, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Religious Institute, Rights Working Group, Southern Poverty Law Center, United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, Women's Refugee Commission, and 50 state and local organizations from across the country.
Read the full letter and the list of signatories here.