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Children in ICE detention centers need safety and family units

Illegal immigration
A migrant child chooses clothing at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church temporary migrant shelter in McAllen, Texas, June 27, 2014. |

Amid fears over the spread of COVID-19, a federal judge ruled that U.S Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) must release all children held in the country’s three family detention centers by July 17. The ruling, which will impact at least 120 children, promotes the health and well-being of the most vulnerable in our immigration system. Many Americans agree that families belong together, at home, within welcoming communities, and near those who will love and support them throughout the asylum application process.

Let’s set the record straight from the outset — Children are not held in ICE family detention centers because they’ve broken the law or committed a crime. The act of seeking asylum is not illegal. In fact, pursuing safety in the U.S. because of violence, conflict, or persecution in one’s home country is a right given by American law. Yet, this is the first time a court has ordered the release of children from family detention, and it remains unclear how ICE will respond. It’s possible the agency will try to once again separate families by releasing children without their parents. It’s also possible ICE will simply try to deport the families altogether.

Neither option is acceptable. Families who have fled violence and come to America to seek refuge should be kept together, not forcibly separated or deported in violation of U.S. law. The reality of large-scale family detention is even more heartbreaking because alternatives that keep families together and safe already exist.

No parent should have to decide between separation from their child or remaining detained together in an unhealthy, unsafe situation. No child should have to witness a parent struggling with such a horrific decision. Instead, ICE should release children with their intact family through alternatives to detention (ATD) that allow families who pass rigorous screenings to participate in the adjudication of their asylum claim in communities rather than in jails. It’s the commonsense, compassionate, and effective solution.

Separating children from their parents inflicts lifelong trauma on children. Young children simply don’t have the capacity to understand what is happening to them. Older children will often bury the traumatic event until it resurfaces later in life. After experiencing separation, children may become more aggressive, withdrawn, or regress to an earlier stage of development. Even after reunification, children may become hyper alert to real or perceived threats to separation from their parents. The trauma of family separation negatively impacts a child’s ability to build relationships, and can create a lack of attachment. Not only is this proven through research, our nation watched it happen before our own eyes in 2018 and we were horrified.

Research about the impact of family detention on children is equally troubling. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that detained children experience developmental delay, poor psychological adjustment, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other behavioral problems positively correlated to time spent detained. Even for brief periods, family detention negatively effects not only the child, but also the adult and family structure.

If the ultimate aim of holding asylum-seeking families in ICE detention is to fully process their cases for asylum, as is their legal right, there is no reason not to prioritize alternatives. Many detainees already have relatives in the U.S. who are eager to help them and can quickly secure homes where they can stay. Case management, in addition to technology like tracking devices, can be used to ensure applicants comply with rules and appear at their court hearing and comply with immigration orders.

What’s more, the cost of managing asylum cases in this manner is pennies on the dollar when compared to the cost of incarcerating those seeking asylum indefinitely in facilities that have been shown to inadequately care for detainees. Every taxpayer dollar that is spent on jailing families who haven’t committed crimes is wasted.

Releasing detainees into the custody of their family or loved ones, and supported through case management, is not only far less costly and more humane than keeping them in ICE detention, but it also works.

With support from nonprofit organizations, asylum-seeking families overwhelmingly follow through on their asylum applications from home and are compliant with the court process: more than 95 percent of people in alternatives to detention programs appeared for their final hearings, according to the National Immigration Forum. At Bethany Christian Services, where we provide community-based help to children and families, we’ve seen this firsthand. 

Just a few months ago, a family reunited after more than six years apart. Three brothers, who came to the U.S. as unaccompanied children, were placed in foster family care through Bethany. Their mother fled to the U.S. many years before and was being held in ICE detention. Their reunification occurred in that detention center instead of at home. They could see one another but physical contact wasn’t allowed — a longed for embrace would wait. Due to growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention and the availability of alternatives, their mother was released in April 2020. This family can now safely pursue asylum in the U.S. together.

As ICE considers how to release children from detention in order to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus, ICE must prioritize keeping families together and in homes within welcoming communities.

While not every family’s asylum application will be approved, every parent and child deserves a full, fair hearing — it’s their legal right. And there’s no reason to deny safe, effective, affordable and humane ways to ensure each family gets that hearing without keeping them detained in costly prison-like conditions.

Dona Abbott is the Senior Vice President of Global, Refugee, and Immigrant Services at Bethany Christian Services. Tawnya Brown is the Vice President of Refugee and Immigrant Services at Bethany Christian Services.

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