Child migrants need protection, not prison

October 7, 2014

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By Pratap Chatterjee, Executive director of CorpWatch and member of Amnesty International USA Board of Directors

Since the summer of 2013, there has been an unprecedented level of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing the border into the United States.  The number of apprehended children has already surpassed 66,000 from October 2013 through August 2014. This is more than twice as many children who were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol during the same period the year before. In response to this crisis, President Obama requested that Congress provide more than $2 billion in funding to control the surge of unaccompanied children at the border and the power to expedite deportations.

In July 2014, the AIUSA Board of Directors sent a letter to the president calling for reform of US immigration policy so that it is in line with international standards and obligations. We asked that the Obama administration:

  • Ensure that unaccompanied migrant children are detained only as a last resort and for as short a time as possible;
  • Ensure access to health care, education and other essential services;
  • Provide a guardian and counsel, translation and interpretation services during deportation proceedings; and
  • Never return them to a country to which they fear returning.

Click here to see a copy of the signed letter.

More recently there has been an increase in the number of families from Central America crossing the border.  66,000 family members have crossed the border since October 2013, more than five times the numbers from the year before.   In response to the rise in the number of families, the Obama administration is expected to convert a former man camp for oil field workers in Dilley, South Texas, into a detention center for as many as 2,400 migrant women and children at a time.  The opening of this facility follows the recent opening of similar family detention centers in Artesia, NM and Karnes, TX.  The Dilley Center will be operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The plan to massively expand family detention facilities is the wrong way to address the serious humanitarian crisis that is unfolding on our Southern border.

We know why these unaccompanied children – some as young as 5 – and families are coming. Unprecedented levels of organized crime and gang related violence in Mexico and many Central American countries has spurred them to flee in ever increasing numbers.  The route that these migrants take to get to the border is devastating and dangerous, as Amnesty International has previously documented. Riding precariously on the tops of freight trains, many are met with discrimination and xenophobia, targeted by people smugglers and traffickers, and prey to kidnapping by criminal gangs – in many instances in collusion with government officials. Every year thousands of migrants are ill-treated, abducted or raped. Those who commit such abuses against migrants are rarely held to account.

For those who survive the extreme insecurity and dangers of the journey through Mexico, crossing the U.S. border brings its own hazards.  Undocumented migrants often travel through desert on foot, or are smuggled in car trunks, cramped vans, trucks, or shipping containers, as human cargo. Increased immigration enforcement in certain border areas has pushed undocumented immigrants to use particularly dangerous routes through the US desert; hundreds of people die each year as a result.

Increasing detention capacity by opening the Dilley Center does not solve any of these problems.  Amnesty International has previously documented issues with the immigration detention system in the United States.  It should also be remembered that it is just over five years since federal officials shut down the T. Don Hutto Family Detention facility in Taylor, Texas, a 500 bed facility that was run by CCA, following years of litigation and other advocacy on the deplorable conditions of confinement and treatment of children at that facility. We have to ask, why should this time be different with detaining families in a CCA run facility?

Last week, Amnesty International USA joined 167 other organizations in asking President Obama to reverse course and cancel the plans for Dilley and to seek more humane solutions for migrants.

However the larger question should be: when is the United States government going to honor its international obligations when enforcing its immigration laws?  Individuals subject to deportation still have human rights.  International law requires that deportation procedures follow due process and conform to international human rights standards.  Like any other circumstance, detention pending removal proceedings must be justified as a necessary and proportionate measure in each individual case, and should only be used as a measure of last resort and be subject to judicial review.  Instead, detention is the knee-jerk reaction of the US government to deal with migration flows and surges.  The government will go on spending $164 per day to detain migrants, filling the coffers of CCA and other private contractors, while less costly and equally effective measures exists.  The recent surge in unaccompanied children and families from Central America have brought the United States’ broken immigration system back out into the spotlight.  It is time that the US reforms it laws and policies in responding to such crises and align them with its obligations under international law, by, for instance:

  1. The US Congress should pass legislation creating a presumption against the detention of immigrants and asylum seekers and ensuring that it be used as a measure of last resort;
  2. The US government should ensure that alternative non-custodial measures, such as reporting requirements or an affordable bond, are always explicitly considered before resorting to detention. Reporting requirements should not be unduly onerous, invasive or difficult to comply with, especially for families with children and those of limited financial means.  Conditions of release should be subject to judicial review.
  3. The US Congress should pass legislation to ensure that all immigrants and asylum seekers have access to individualized hearings on the lawfulness, necessity, and appropriateness of detention.
  4. The US government should ensure the adoption of enforceable human rights detention standards in all detention facilities that house immigration detainees, either through legislation or through the adoption of enforceable policies and procedures by the Department of Homeland Security.  There should be effective independent oversight to ensure compliance with detention standards and accountability for any violations.