Stop Detaining Families

Recent rampant violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has prompted a substantial number of mothers and children to seek refuge in the United States. Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world. In 2011, El Salvador had the highest rate of gender-motivated killing of women in the world, followed by Guatemala (third highest) and Honduras (sixth highest).

In response to this latest influx of refugees, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) significantly expanded detention of mothers and children by more than 4,000 percent from approximately 85 detention beds to nearly 3,800 beds. In December 2014, DHS closed the controversial family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico and opened a new, privately-run, for-profit facility in Dilley, Texas with capacity to detain 2,400 mothers and children by the end of May 2015. 

Most of these beds will be filled by mothers and children fleeing extreme violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Among individuals entering family detention in fiscal year 2014, more than half of all children were age six or younger.

Families and children have sought refuge in the United States for decades, but detaining them on a massive scale is a disturbing new development.

Families are subjected to an alarmingly swift removal process, often without fair opportunities to present their cases. According to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, new detention facilities were built to quickly deport people and deter future migrants. Now under an injunction that prohibits DHS from detaining for deterrence, DHS has begun to justify family detention as a means of keeping families together, falsely implying that DHS would otherwise have no choice but to separate mothers and children. Reports show that the denial of due process is widespread and mothers and their children are in danger of being sent back to potentially life-threatening situations.

Why is detention inappropriate for mothers and children?

1.  Family detention has negative physical and mental health effects, especially for children and asylum seekers.

  • Detention re-traumatizes children and mothers who are survivors of violence as control over their lives is placed in the hands of guards and they lose autonomy over their freedom of movement. Allegations of sexual abuse by a guard at the Berks, PA facility are currently under criminal investigation.
  • Children are particularly vulnerable. Children detained at Artesia experience weight loss, gastro-intestinal problems, and suicidal thoughts. Regardless of the amount of time they are detained, children can suffer psychological trauma and permanent mental health issues.
  • Family relationships are more likely to break down the longer families are detained. Given the restrictions and disciplinary rules within a detention facility, mothers’ limited authority weakens their parenting skills.

2.  Family detention impedes due process.

  • Detention centers are located in South Texas where limited legal resources are overwhelmed, making it difficult to access legal services.
  • Attorneys face a myriad of challenges working with detained families, including accessing the facilities in person or by phone, gathering their supporting documentation, and preparing cases moving expeditiously for credible fear interviews as well as bond and merits hearings.

3.  Women and children face barriers to pursue asylum in detention.

  • In an effort to deter future migration, DHS has been placing families in a results-oriented expedited removal system that robs detained families of fair and meaningful opportunities to pursue asylum.
  • To proceed with the asylum process, mothers must pass a screening process known as the “credible fear interview” (CFI). DHS uses CFIs to gather information to evaluate whether individuals have a “fear of return” that could qualify them for asylum in the United States. Interview conditions, in which children may be present, can discourage mothers from being candid and sharing painful details of their experiences. Mothers have also reported that asylum officers rushed their interviews, and limited their responses.
  • DHS tightened its credible fear standard in the spring of 2014 as the numbers of children and families arriving increased. Without an attorney, it is very difficult for these women to understand how their fears qualify them for protection in the United States. Initially,the credible fear screen-in rate for Artesia families was 37.8 percent compared to the nationwide average of 62.7 percent.After a huge effort to bring pro bono attorneys to Artesia, the credible fear screen-in rate increased to 70 percent, demonstrating the need for due process and access to counsel.

Policy Recommendations

  1. End the use of family detention. The U.S. government essentially eliminated family detention in 2009 after a lawsuit challenged conditions. Warehousing vulnerable mothers and children in remote facilities is inhumane and wastes taxpayer dollars.
  2. Expand the use of alternatives to detention (ATDs), such as release on orders of supervision and community-based alternatives, which are more humane and cost-effective. ATDs cost 70 cents to $17 per day compared to $266 per day in family detention and have proven to work.
  3. Provide government-appointed counsel. Because immigrants are not given appointed counsel, individuals in detention struggle to find attorneys and navigate the complex immigration system. Access to legal counsel makes immigration courts more efficient by making sure individuals understand the process and their rights.

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DHS Resources on Family Detention

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Advocacy Letters

American Bar Association (Mar. 2015) | American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) (Sept. 2014) | Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Human Trafficking Advocates (Sept. 2014) | Faith Leaders (Mar. 2015) | Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) (June 2015) | National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (Nov. 2014) | National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women (May 2015) | New York City Bar Association (Jan. 2016) (May 2015) (Nov. 2014) | Women's and Children's Advocates (Jun. 2014)

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Opposition from Elected Officials

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To learn more about immigration detention, visit NIJC's immigration detention resource page.

1. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Stakeholder Meeting, 12 Aug. 2014.