A list of resources, facts, and media coverage on family detention
Last updated: February 29, 2016
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:
- "Family Detention 101" from the Detention Watch Network
- "From Persecution to Prison: Child and Family Detention" from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services
- "Costly Family Detention Denies Justice to Mothers and Children" from the National Immigrant Justice Center
- "Expose & Close: Artesia Family Residential Center, New Mexico" from Detention Watch Network, detailing the human rights violations at that family detention center
- "For-Profit Family Detention: Meet the Private Prison Corporations Making Millions by Locking Up Refugee Families" report by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies, October 2014
- "Hutto: America's Family Prison" a short film exploring the first big experiment with family detention between 2006-2009 at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.
- "BRIEF OF AMICUS, AMERICAN IMMIGRATION LAWYERS ASSOCIATION, In Removal Proceedings Appeal of a Decision of an Immigration Judge." Required reading to understand the whole system of family detention.
- "I Know an American 'Internment' Camp When I See One" by Dr. Satsuki Ina, a psychotherapist who was born in a Japanese-American prison camp during World War II. In this piece, she recounts her visits to two so-called family detention facilities in Texas and the psychological toll detention takes on the women and children imprisoned there.
- Statment of Barbara Hines Senior Emerson Fellow to the House Judiciary Democrats. July 27, 2015 "I am convinced that there is no humane, moral or legal way to detain families..."
- AAP Letter to Secretary Jeh Johnson on Family Detention: The American Academy of Pedatrics told Johnson: "Above all else, we urge you to remember that these are children. They are scared, vulnerable children, many of whom have been victims of violence, and they need our compassion and assistance. We urge you do what’s best for their health and well-being."
- Judge Dolly Gee's ruling on family detention: The U.S. District Judge said federal authorities had violated key provisions of an 18-year-old court settlement that put restrictions on the detention of migrant children.
- U.S. government's reponse to Judge Gee's ruling: Justice Department lawyers filed documents at the California Central District Court urging [the judge] to not implement her decision, saying the Department of Homeland Security intends to turn the centers into short-term processing facilities that her ruling "addressed practices and policies that no longer exist."
- Klobuchar Letter to Sec. Johnson: I write to express my concern regarding recent reports about the treatment of women and children from Central America who arrived at the United States-Mexico border to escape violence and poverty.
- Texas Health and Human Services Commission approved rule for licensing of detention centers as childcare facilites.
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.
- Read detailed coverage of scandals at the T. Don Hutto detention center.
- The ACLU won a 2007 settlement over the human rights abuses inside family detention at the T. Don Hutto detention center.
- Read Locking Up Family Values, the 2007 report from Women's Refugee Commission and Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services about family detention at Hutto and the Berks County facility.
- Click here for a detailed archive of the campaign that won the end of family detention in Texas in 2009.
- Two documentary films were produced about Hutto. See the short film Hutto: America's Family Prison online or order a copy of the feature length film The Least of These.
Who opposes family detention and deportation raids on the families?
- NGO letter to the Department of Homeland Security: More than 100 faith, immigrant rights, and civil rights and civil liberties organizations call on Homeland Security officials to reconsider plans to put families and children into prison-like detention centers.
- Congressional letter to the Department of Homeland Security: Congressman Adam Smith was joined by 27 other Members of Congress who signed onto the letter. “The arrival to the United States of children and families fleeing violence in Central America is a grave humanitarian issue,” the Members wrote. “Our government should not detain women and young children who are seeking asylum and refuge.”
- Texans United for Families' letter to President Obama: The letter reads in part, "Detention is a human rights violation and no person — especially families with children — deserves to be put in a cage for seeking a better life in the United States." You can add your signature to the letter and send an email to the White House by clicking here.
- DWN Members Slam ICE Plans to Open New #FamilyDetention Facility in Dilley, TX #theyarechildren: The collected statements from advocates denouncing the announcement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on September 23 that the Obama Administration plans to continue expanding family detention with the opening of what will be the nation’s largest immigrant detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
- Concerns and Recommendations from Advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault: Advocates call for an end to the use of detention centers for immigrant women & children fleeing violence and for the Obama Administration respond to this humanitarian crisis appropriately by denouncing these human rights violations and pursuing strategies to address the root causes, while at the same time offering protection to qualified individuals under asylum law, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA).
- Senators' letter to the Department of Homeland Security: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy was joined by 9 other Senators who signed onto the letter. "[The decision to build a large new immigration detention facility for women and children in Dilley, Texas] threatens to make permanent a practice of presumptive detention for families and marks a reversal of this administration's family detention policy."
- Congressional Letter to President Obama: Rep. Zoe Lofgren was joined by 31 other Members of Congress who signed onto the letter. "We have identified three principal concerns with the rapid, mass expansion of family detention: (1) the "no-bond/high-bond" oily for families; (2) the disparity in credible fear rates for families in detention; and (3) the lack of appropriate child care within facilities. … Family detention should not be further expanded until these and other problems can be fixed."
- Groups Working with Asylum Seekers and Refugees Letter to President Obama: 58 non-profit, faith-based, human rights, legal service, immigration bar association, refugee assistance, and domestic violence organizations, as well as law professors who teach asylum and refugee law in this country urge the Administration to end the detention policies aimed at women and children seeking asylum from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala including the end of family detention.
- New York City Bar Association letter opposing the expansion of family detention: "...The Administration’s plan to jail unprecedented numbers of families and young children while expediting their removal proceedings will lead to large-scale due process violations and the erroneous removals of legitimate refugees and others entitled to international protection."
- NGO letter to President Obama opposing Dilley: More than 120 national and regional organizations wrote to President Obama opposing the opening of the Dilley, Texas family detention center. "We take issue with the Administration’s message that locking up mothers and children at the border is justified to deter others from attempting a journey that may be necessary to save their lives."
- ACLU letter to Senators asking them not to fund family detention and other immigration enforcement: "Family detention is costly to taxpayers, profits private prison companies, violates due process, and has led to the deaths of children deported to Central America. The ACLU strongly urges the Senate to NOT appropriate any funds to support or expand family detention."
- NGO letter to President Obama opposing massive expansion of family detention camps: "With all of the new information we have about the reality of the dangers these families face and the nature of our nation’s legal obligations to them as asylum seekers, the district court injunction offers your administration an opportunity to reverse course on family detention."
- Luis H. Zayas, the Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin: "Detention has had serious and long-lasting impacts on the psychological well-being of the families I interviewed at Karnes."
- Eighty faith leaders from different traditions and denominations: "As faith leaders representing churches, synagogues, and faith-based organizations in the United States who are deeply committed to upholding this country's moral leadership to protect children and the sanctity of the family, we call on you to end the harsh policy of family detention..."
- The American Bar Association: "...Widespread detention of migrants is inconsistent with fundamental principles of liberty and due process and is particularly problematic when it impacts asylum seekers and children."
- Lawyers who have been representing families at the Berks County Family Detention center: "...we respectfully request that your office investigate the unlawful imprisonment of the children at this facility. We further respectfully request that your office immediately order the closure of BCRC and contemplate civil and criminal penalties against those responsible for this willful contravention of the laws of our Commonwealth resulting in the unlawful imprisonment of hundreds of children over the last several years."
- 76 University of Texas faculty members: Faculty from UT urge the University President to use the University's relationship with landowner and well-known UT alumnus Red McCombs to stop the deal to open the Dilley family detention camp.
- ACLU letter to ICE Director Sarah Saldaña about concerns about retaliation at Karnes over a hunger strike: "If our understanding of the facts is correct, the alleged actions by ICE suggest retaliation against both detainees and immigration advocates for activities protected by the First Amendment, raise troubling constitutional questions, and violate some of ICE’s own standards governing family detention facilities. We therefore request answers to the following questions."
- Letter to President Obama to End Family Detention: In this letter, 188 organizations call on the president to end the detention of children and mothers fleeing violence in Central America.
- U.S. Representatives Luis V. Gutiérrez (D- Ill.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) issued a statement on May 14th, 2015 calling on DHS to end the policy of detaining families.
- 33 Senators Call on Administration to End Family Detention Policy: In a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson 33 senators write, “the prolonged detention of asylum-seeking mothers and children who pose no flight risk or danger to the community is unacceptable and goes against our most fundamental values.”
- We Belong Together, First Focus and 30 organizations that advocate for the well-being of women and children sent a joint letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this morning denouncing the practice of family detention and calling for the release of all families currently detained.
- The Japanese American Citizens League Statement on Family Detention: "JACL is deeply troubled by the chilling similarities between the confinement of women and children in places such as Dilley and Karnes, and the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans at places such as Manzanar, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake where barbed wire and guard towers encircled hastily constructed barracks that offered little privacy, no comfort, and contributed to the breakdown of family structures."
- One hundred and thiry-seven House Democrats tell the Obama Administration to end family detention: "We believe your Department has heard many of our concerns but has not fully grasped the serious harm being inflicted on mothers and children in custody. We believe the only solution to this problem is to end the use of family detention."
- One hundred seventy-eight House Democrats call for the immediate end of family detention: "It is long past time to end family detention. In light of this recent federal court ruling, we urge you take all necessary and appropriate steps to bring the Department's practices in line with the settlement agreement and the recent court ruling."
Refugees and Migrants in the United States- Families and Unaccompanied Children: Report released in July 2015 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Senators Urge DHS to Examine Policies that Limit Access to Legal Counsel for Detained Families: On 10/23/15, 19 senators sent DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson a letter urging him to examine ICE’s policies that have barred or limited asylum-seeking mothers and children access to legal representation in Dilley, Texas.
Congressional letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services: “…We urge DFPS to refrain from prematurely licensing the Karnes and Dilley detention centers.” October 21, 2015
One hundred and sixty organizations send this letter to President Obama opposed to deportation raids targeting Central American children and their parents: “We urge you to renounce the use of such harsh tactics against this incredibly vulnerable group that has already suffered horrible, uncontrolled gang violence, domestic violence, and other forms of persecution.” December 31, 2015
Two hundred and forty-one organizations send this letter to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to notify the agencies that among the Central American families targeted in deportation raids are persons with disabilities. January 11, 2016.
A Senate letter to President Obama demanding that the administration stop immigration home raids against Central American children and their families; and consider designating Guatemala, and re-designating El Salvador and Honduras for temporary protected status. January 21, 2016.
More than 270 organizations sent a letter to President Obama asking his administration to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a form of temporary immigration relief, to undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in light of pervasive violence and environmental disasters that prevent them from safely returning to the region. January 25, 2016.
Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) issued this notice that the licensing of the Berks County Family Detention Center (BCRC) would not be renewed and officially revoked, ending family detention in Pennsylvania. January 27, 2016.
Amicus Brief in Flores Supporting Plaintiffs-Appellees and Urging Affirmance: Immigration rights organizations filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs-appellees and in support of affirmation of the district court judgment in the Flores settlement agreement lawsuit. February 23, 2016.
Grassroots Leadership coverage of family detention:
Outcry over plans to lock up refugee families, July 7, 2014
Family Detention Centers Halted in Texas, February 7, 2012
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'" Vox.com. August 6, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/8/6/5971003/artesia-immigrants-detention-due-process-families-lawyers-asylum-court-border
"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." abqjournal.com. August 3, 2014, http://www.abqjournal.com/439865/opinion/immigrant-families-not-treated-properly.html
"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.com. August 5, 2014, http://www.buzzfeed.com/johnstanton/government-declares-undocumented-immigrant-child-mother-a-na
- "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." chron.com. July 18, 2014, http://www.chron.com/news/article/Feds-will-house-immigrant-families-at-detention-5630925.php
"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." TheHill.com. August 1, 2014, http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/civil-rights/214001-family-detention-a-shame-and-a-waste
"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." Vox.com. July 24, 2014. http://www.vox.com/2014/7/24/5932023/inside-the-remote-secretive-detention-center-for-migrant-families
"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 Program." nbc.com. July 25, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/immigration-border-crisis/flood-immigrant-families-border-revives-dormant-detention-program-n164461
"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." NationalJournal.com. August 6, 2014, http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-america/perspectives/border-crisis-prompting-new-xenophobic-drumbeat-for-an-old-disgrace-detention-camps-20140806
"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." KUT.org. August 6, 2014, http://kut.org/post/private-prison-group-runs-texas-new-immigrant-detention-center
"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." NYTimes.com. August 5, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/06/us/seeking-to-stop-migrants-from-risking-trip-us-speeds-the-path-to-deportation-for-families.html?smid=pl-share&_r=1
"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." NYTimes.com. September 5, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/06/us/in-remote-detention-center-a-battle-on-fast-deportations.html
"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, http://www.texasobserver.org/exclusive-feds-planning-massive-family-detention-center-south-texas/
"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. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/23/usa-immigration-detention-idUSL2N0RO23O20140923
"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. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/us/homeland-security-chief-opens-largest-immigration-detention-center-in-us.html?_r=0
"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. http://www.ksat.com/content/pns/ksat/news/2014/12/16/karnes-county-approves-family-detention-center-expansion.html
"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. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/magazine/the-shame-of-americas-family-detention-camps.html?_r=0
"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. https://news.vice.com/article/escaping-into-prison-the-battle-over-immigrant-mothers-and-children-detained-by-the-us
"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. http://www.democracynow.org/2015/3/25/private_prisons_for_immigrant_families_grow