Could Homeland Security’s New Guidelines for Family Detention Bring Relief to Families? | The Center for Victims of Torture

Could Homeland Security’s New Guidelines for Family Detention Bring Relief to Families?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Marie Soueid is a legal fellow in the Washington, D.C. office.

Upon entering the Berks County Residential Center, one of three family immigration detention centers in the United States, there is a palpable feeling that you are walking into a hospital. Residences house six people to a room with only a curtain separating the bathroom area. Originally a nursing home, administrators have infused the common spaces in Berks with plants, computers, and children’s games to create a residential environment. However, instead, each room feels like a hospital waiting room. And for all of the families at Berks, they wait each day – with either hope of release or the dread of deportation to the dangerous situations from which they fled.

Many of the torture survivors who receive care in the United States from the Center for Victims of Torture™ (CVT) have come to the U.S. as asylum seekers. In our work extending interdisciplinary care to torture survivors, we hear stories of escape from torture and chaos in survivors’ home countries, only to be met with arrest and detention once they reach the United States. I visited the Berks Center last month, along with a group of immigrant rights groups, to speak to the staff and asylum seekers and to see what life was like there for families.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced a series of reforms to its immigrant family detention program; meanwhile current detainees are striking and calling for an end to their detention. After my visit to Berks, I find neither of these developments surprising. Despite attempts to provide freedom of movement and activities for children, a few hours at a detention center revealed that “humanely” detaining families is an oxymoron.

In the wake of national hysteria over the increased flow of asylum seekers, including scores of unaccompanied children to the United States from Central America in 2013/2014, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned to a policy of detaining families on a large scale. That practice had previously been mostly phased out during detention reform efforts embraced by the Obama administration in 2009. Berks, a 96-bed facility, was set to double in the coming months.

During our tour, which was coordinated by ICE, “residents” (as ICE refers to those detained in family immigration facilities) met privately with us and told us about their struggle being detained despite not committing any crimes. In fact, ICE officials reiterated that anyone with a criminal history is screened out and not placed in the facility. 

Those in the facility, mostly women and children though ICE permits a few husbands and fathers to remain at Berks to preserve family units, were apprehended at various border crossings or points of entry and have filed applications for asylum, seeking to be protected from deportation to a country where they may face persecution. Arriving mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, with a few individuals from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, residents are ushered into the facility for indefinite periods of time even though viable alternatives to detention exist and are more cost effective. 

Shortly after our visit to Berks, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, head of the federal agency overseeing ICE, announced that he approved a plan that would allow for the conditional release or release on bond of families as their cases moved through the immigration courts. With immigration courts facing backlogs that have some cases pending through 2019, this could offer significant relief to residents from indefinite detention.

In 2013, CVT issued a report, Tortured and Detained, on the effects of detaining asylum-seekers, in particular those who have faced torture, and recommended community-based alternatives to detention. Although many of the necessary steps to end immigration detention must come from Congress, the guidelines proposed by DHS are within the administration’s rule-making power. 

According to the new guidelines, release on recognizance, supervision, monitoring or bond will be available to those individuals and families who present a credible fear of persecution upon being returned to their country of origin and can provide a verifiable residential address in the United States. Coming from some of the most dangerous regions in the world, many of the residents have protection concerns and asylum claims. UNHCR determined that 88% of the women and children detained are asylum seekers fleeing violence. ICE seems to now agree that holding those with a credible fear is both inhumane and costly.

For residents, this means a chance to reclaim their family unit. Although county and federal officials running the facility insisted that relationships between parents and children remained intact, some residents described their inability to control or discipline their children without fear of intervention from officials.

Berks has a relatively open environment, with outside spaces for play and leisure; however significant impediments to freedom of movement exist, such as identification checks three times daily. One of the chief complaints of residents is the nightly checks, which require staff to verify that residents are breathing every fifteen minutes. Many described it as invasive and disturbing. Despite ICE’s best attempt to provide a humane environment, these detainees cannot help but feel as if they are being punished for fleeing persecution.    

As we walked through the classrooms and craft areas in the sterile and sparse residence at Berks, a poster created by a few kids was lying on one of the tables. It read, “we want to be free and justice.” When we visited the facility in June, the population stood at 89. As of July 13, it had fallen to 71, according to ICE. Whether the drop was due to a wave of conditional releases or an increase in removals from the country is unclear. We can hope that as officials begin reviewing the individual cases of families in detention, the calls of the children and adults for their freedom have been heeded by ICE.

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