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Today, a coalition of organizations submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to uncover why the government has refused to release about 150 asylum-seeking families from family detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some families have been detained in ICE custody for over 11 months.

The organizations include the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, Aldea – The People’s Justice Center, Alianza Americas, Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, El Rescate, Geographies of Displacement: a Joint Research Project of the University of Texas at Austin and El Colegio de Sonora, Immigrant Justice Task Force, Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, League of United Latin American Citizens, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, No More Deaths, Project Lifeline, Proyecto Dilley, Public Law Center, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Uncage & Reunite Families Coalition, and Witness at the Border

As of July 20, 2020, DHS was detaining 84 parents and 69 children at the Karnes detention center in Texas, 72 parents and 100 children at the Dilley detention center in Texas, and 12 parents and 9 children at a detention center in Berks, PA.

From July 1, 2020, through July 20, 2020, DHS detained 108 new parents and 78 children at Karnes, 22 new parents and 44 children at Dilley, and 5 new parents and 5 children at Berks.

Between July 1 and 20, 2020, ICE released only about 70 minors with their parents.

As of July 20, 2020, two parents detained at Karnes, and one employee and one detained parent at Berks, tested positive for COVID-19. As of July 22, 2020, an employee and five new detainees at Karnes tested positive for COVID-19. As of July 24, 2020, at Karnes one more employee and two new detainees tested positive for COVID-19.

The Trump Administration’s refusal to release parents with their children is cruel and irrational given the very small number of families in ICE detention, the spreading COVID-19 in these facilities, and the fact virtually none of the parents or children detained are flight risks or a danger to anyone. Yet the Trump administration is spending tens of millions of dollars to detain these families, funds that could be far better used to fight the pandemic and save lives.

In order to better understand why the Trump administration has refused to release parents and children together, a coalition of organizations is today submitting a Freedom of Information Act demanding that DHS and ICE release all documents involving decisions not to release families detained since January 1, 2020. The coalition is also asking for copies of all instructions issued to ICE agents who decide which families to detain and which to release. The coalition is also demanding copies of all instructions regarding the handling of credible fear interviews conducted to assess whether apprehended migrants possess a credible fear of persecution in their home countries. Until about a year ago, DHS determined that about 90% of families had a credible fear of persecution in their home countries and promptly released them, which brought the Government into compliance with the Flores v. Barr settlement which requires the prompt release of minors. However, under Trump’s tight restrictions on asylum eligibility, now only about 10%  of families are found to possess a credible fear, and only those few found to have a credible fear are released.

Denise Bell, Researcher for Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement: “Today’s FOIA submission seeks to shine a much needed light on ICE’s inscrutable decision-making to hold families in prolonged detention. ICE’s refusal to release families from detention is unconscionable, and all the more so during a pandemic. ICE has chosen again and again not to act on its authority to release families. The government must explain the reasoning for its inaction, and release of these documents is a necessary first step toward accountability.”

Rev. John Fife, a retired Presbyterian minister, human rights advocate, and a founding patriarch of the faith-based Sanctuary Movement and No-More-Deaths, said in a statement: “Since the founding of the Sanctuary Movement in 1982 through the current mission of No More Deaths, we have been committed to ensuring the legal and human rights of asylum-seekers. No More Deaths has been saving the lives of children and families in the Sonoran Desert, upholding the International Red Cross Standards for humanitarian aid, and documenting the violations of human rights by CBP agents and DHS. From our humanitarian aid mission in the desert borderlands for 16 years, No More Deaths volunteers know that children and family asylum-seekers are the most vulnerable persons on the border. We must know how and why DHS continues to detain these most vulnerable families in the midst of Covid-19 outbreaks.”

Peter Schey, President of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, and one of the attorneys representing the requesting parties, said in a statement regarding the FOIA: “The records the coalition is demanding that the Government release will be used to analyze the reasons for decisions to detain rather than release families and to formulate proposed legislation, a petition for rule-making addressed to DHS, and public education to address what appears to be irrational and inconsistent decision-making regarding families’ release. The President’s commitment to detain families does nothing to better the country. Families are being unnecessarily detained at enormous cost to the tax-payers simply to maintain the loyalty of the marginalized voters President Trump has convinced should blame immigrants for the economic and other challenges they face in this country today.”

Michelle M. Seyler, Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE ) said in a statement: “For nearly four years, we have watched in horror while the Trump Administration committed human rights abuses against immigrants in this country and at the border. Even in the throes of a global pandemic, this administration continues to abuse, dehumanize, and harm those who seek shelter and safety within the United States. Our faith traditions teach us to treat every human being as our neighbor. Refusing to release detained immigrant families in the middle of this crisis is pure evil. We demand that the government provide these documents to our coalition so that we can understand the decision-making process behind these atrocious acts and take all necessary steps to gain their release.”

Michael Bochenek, Senior Counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement regarding the FOIA: “It is vital that US immigration authorities publicly explain the basis for their detention decisions, including by disclosing the documents we’ve requested. With the spread of Covid-19 in immigration detention, it is even more urgent for the government to justify its ongoing refusal to release children and their families.”

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