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Good News on Immigration Detention But Keeping the Pressure On

Some 440,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers are expected to be detained in the U.S. this year. We need to be realistic. We need immigration reform and that has to come from Congress.
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Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) announcement this week that they will stop detaining families at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, is terrific news. When I first visited the facility, which is a former prison, in December of 2006 I was shocked at what I saw -- kids getting only one hour of school a day, terribly inadequate medical care, insufficient time to eat, and, worst of all, inappropriately severe discipline. (See my report: Locking Up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families.)

The facility was part of the Bush administration's plan to end what they called "catch and release." That administration gave the impression that families were swarming across the border and that smugglers were using babies as "mules" to prevent the detention of their clients. But they were never able to fill Hutto and they never to my knowledge identified a trafficked child through the new process.

What I saw at the facility were families -- mostly women, many of them pregnant, most with very young children -- who were fleeing to the United States for protection. The trek north through the desert is extremely dangerous and difficult. Many die on the journey. This is not a trip you make with your young children unless you are desperate. It also doesn't make sense to bring your toddler with you if you sole intention is to work illegally. It was clear from speaking with these women that they had real fears and valid claims to asylum.

But at Hutto they were treated as criminals, and their children were punished as well. Families slept in actual jail cells -- with prison cots and toilets in the cells. Children had some toys in the common areas but were not allowed to take anything into their cells at night. One family told me about a six-year-old child who cried when a prison guard told him he could not take the picture he had drawn into his cell. The guard yelled at him for crying, and the child's father tried to intervene. As punishment, the child and his father were separated -- to different wings of the facility -- for three days!

Following our report and the ensuing media attention and an ALCU lawsuit, the facility underwent improvements -- including providing education for the children, recreation opportunities, freedom of movement -- but family detention standards that were implemented are entirely inappropriate and still do not address issues of discipline and common decency. I couldn't be happier that families will no longer be placed in this facility. And the administration's decision is a clear indication that they are taking steps in the right direction.

I am worried though. Because the administration has made it clear that they will continue to detain families at another facility I have visited many times. The Berks County Family Shelter Care facility in Leesburg, Pennsylvania. That facility is not as blatantly disturbing as Hutto. It is a former nursing home -- not a prison. But the term "shelter" is still misleading. In 2006, I met families that had been detained there for two years. Children over five are separated from their parents at night. The same sort of disciplinary issues I mentioned above exist at Berks, too. The administration has indicated that they will be looking into alternatives to detention. I hope they mean it and I hope they do it quickly.

Advocates for immigrant rights are losing patience. The administration has been reviewing the system for six months and saying that they understand that the current criminal model of immigration detention is inappropriate for civil detainees. But they have also made it clear in statements and through their actions that they will continue aggressive enforcement operations and that they expect the detained population to grow. That means that some 440,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers are expected to be detained in the U.S. this year. We need to be realistic. We need immigration reform and that has to come from Congress.

Our current laws are unforgiving and unrealistic. We also need to be patient and give the administration time to overhaul a detention system that is a mess. I am not saying we should give them a free pass -- but my interaction with ICE headquarters since the change in administration has been positive. I think they are sincere in their desire to make the system more humane. We have no choice. We have to take a big of a leap of faith -- both sides, and work together. We can still hold them accountable -- especially if we don't see improvement. The announcement to stop using Hutto for families is the administration's attempt to show us they mean it and are trying. The former administration had been planning to increase family detention space with a request for proposals for up to three new facilities. This week, we went from fearing an increase to a cut in family bed space of 75 percent. That is pretty good.

The Obama administration has a lot more work to do to demonstrate that they mean what they say. For now, we have to trust that and do what we can to help them implement change while still holding them accountable.

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