Are the days of family detention numbered?
That remains to be seen, but there is no doubt the chorus of voices against the practice of locking up families and unaccompanied minors from Central America who are seeking asylum in the United States is not only growing louder and more insistent, but gaining powerful allies and being heard where it matters most: the courts, Congress and the White House.
On April 24, a federal judge in California issued a preliminary ruling that current detention policies violate a settlement reached in 1997. That ruling has not yet been filed as the two sides work to hammer out an agreement – a process that was set to end May 24 but has been extended to June 12, with a final agreement expected June 19.
That decision was the second courtroom defeat (of sorts) for the administration: In February, a federal judge ruled the government’s wholesale detention practices – meant to deter other asylum seekers – were illegal, and that each case must be reviewed, with detention decisions must be based on whether the asylum seekers present a risk to public safety if released while awaiting their court date. Advocates cheered that decision and expected families would start being released within a week, but instead, cases were reviewed and large bond amounts – averaging from $7,500 to $15,000 – were set for detainees, leaving them stuck in detention.
On May 21, 11 House Democrats held a press conference calling for the end of family detention; the event featured American Immigration Lawyers Association member Dree Collopy and a former detainee. Those 11 were joined May 27 by 125 other House Democrats sending a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson demanding an end to the practice.
“We believe your department has heard many of our concerns,” the letter says, “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.”
Also on May 21, a group of faith leaders met with White House staff, and presented a letter signed by nearly 1,500 faith leaders from across the country. Among those in the meeting were Sr. Patricia McDermott, president of the Sister of Mercy of the Americas, Lawrence Couch, Director of the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and Fr. Timothy P. Kesicki, President of the Jesuit Conference of the United States and Canada.
McDermott said the president’s reaction to the latest ruling will determine how he is seen by history.
“Over the next two weeks, Sisters of Mercy ask the Obama administration to take immediate action to end the shameful policy of incarcerating refugee women and children,” she said. “President Obama's decision to comply or to appeal Judge Dolly Gee's ruling will determine his legacy on immigration, as much as his fight for comprehensive immigration reform and deferred action.”
Couch said detention “shatters families and traumatizes children.”
“Since the Order was formed in the early 19th century in France, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd have dedicated their lives to protecting women and children. They condemn this detention of innocent people,” Couch said. “As Director of the The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and speaking on behalf of the Sisters and lay staff in 74 countries, I strongly urge the government to immediately end this shameful detention policy.”
Kesicki called family detention immoral:
“As Jesuits we stand in solidarity with the mothers, infants, toddlers, children and teens being unjustly incarcerated in so-called ‘family immigration detention’ facilities,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of these children and mothers are asylum seekers who fled unspeakable violence and are searching for safe-haven within our borders. We call on the Obama Administration to end this corrosive and immoral practice immediately. These families are not flight risks, they quite obviously pose no danger to our communities. There is simply no excuse for the continued detention of mothers, children, toddlers and babies in any immigration detention facility in the United States. This shocking practice should not be the legacy of President Obama’s policy toward refugees and immigrants.”
Attorneys for the administration say detention gives the government more flexibility to respond to surges in immigration attempts.
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