U.S. Government Held Hundreds of Immigrant Children in Adult Detention Facilities, Sometimes for Weeks

June 4, 2013

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New Data Highlights Urgency for Congress to Act to Reform Immigration Detention System

The U.S. government detained 1,366 immigrant children for at least three days in adult detention facilities between 2008 and 2012, according to data obtained by Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). Nearly 1,000 children were held longer than a week in jails and prisons that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contracted to hold adults in deportation proceedings.
“It’s a startling revelation,” said NIJC Executive Director Mary Meg McCarthy. “These children were isolated from access to legal counsel and may have been denied protections under U.S. law. It’s beyond time for Congress to step in and hold DHS accountable for an immigration detention system that has gotten too big and out of control.”
NIJC filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2010 seeking information about children held in DHS custody. Pursuant to a federal court litigation settlement, DHS eventually released information regarding children detained at specified adult detention facilities. The data likely underreports how many children were affected because the terms of the legal settlement limited the scope to only 30 of the approximately 200 adult detention facilities with which DHS held contracts at the time. Based on the numbers provided, immigrant children spent a combined 36,598 days in adult detention facilities. DHS has failed to provide any meaningful response when NIJC expressed concern about the findings.
Each year DHS apprehends thousands of immigrant children, placing many of them in deportation proceedings. Among these children are asylum seekers, youth who entered the U.S. unlawfully to reunite with family members, and others who entered legally and overstayed their visas. A 1985 legal settlement known as Flores v. Reno requires that “juveniles will not be detained with an unrelated adult for more than 24 hours” and sets guidelines for the detention, release, and treatment of children in immigration custody. The new data shows that DHS violated the terms of the Flores agreement and their own regulations and policies.
“The U.S. government has a responsibility to protect the wellbeing and human rights of all children in the immigration system,” McCarthy said. “Congress and the Obama administration must provide comprehensive oversight to ensure that DHS complies with the Flores agreement, which was intended to ensure that no child suffers in a punitive or dangerous prison environment while they try to navigate America’s complex immigration system.”
Lawyers at Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd. represented NIJC in the NIJC v. DHS before the federal court in the Northern District of Illinois.
Download NIJC's full analysis of the ICE data: