Stop locking up child refugees

For generations, the United States has wrestled with how to treat refugees fleeing oppression to seek asylum in the United States. When my father came to this country from Germany in 1935, many Americans felt only disdain for refugees. Even Holocaust survivors were forced by the U.S. government to spend months in European and American internment camps, unable to taste the freedom they sought in the United States or to begin the process of rebuilding their lives. Supporters of this policy dismissed those who called for more humane treatment. In the words of General George Patton, the critics “believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not.” 

Today, most Americans recognize that Patton was wrong, that refugees are human beings. They believe that the United States should treat families fleeing oppression with dignity and respect. When someone comes to our shores seeking the protection of our asylum laws, it takes time to investigate their factual claims and determine whether they meet legal criteria to remain in the United States. These asylum-seekers should be allowed to live freely while awaiting this determination. This allows them to find legal counsel, obtain the support of religious groups and community associations, assemble documentation to support their claims, and seek treatment for trauma and other health problems stemming from the persecution they have faced.

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Yet since mid-2014, the federal government has done something inexplicable and unconscionable. The government has decided to put thousands of asylum-seeker children and parents behind bars. After years of detaining families with children only in small numbers and only as a last resort, in the summer of 2014 the Department of Homeland Security began taking the position that families seeking asylum from Central America must be detained in order to send a message to other families considering seeking refuge in the U.S. DHS, which had fewer than 100 beds for family detention in mid-2014, now has more than 1000 beds spread across three facilities. By the spring of 2015, it will boost this number to 3700. The majority of these beds will be in facilities run by large private prison companies, including one with a history of abuses. 

The families held in these facilities are being detained regardless of whether they pose a public danger or a flight risk. Many of them have already passed an initial screening by a federal asylum officer that they have a credible fear of persecution if they are forced to return to their home countries—the first step in demonstrating that they qualify for refugee status under U.S. law. Nonetheless, many of these families — all of which include at least one child, often an infant or toddler — remain behind bars. If somebody accused of a federal crime demonstrates that he is neither a danger to the public nor a flight risk, he is released pending trial. A child seeking asylum has no such luck.

The current policy is both inhumane and illogical. The policy re-traumatizes parents and children who are struggling to recover from the physical and psychological scars caused by violence and terror. For the detained children, this re-traumatization comes during critical, formative years and can impose tremendous, and possibly permanent, harm. The central premise behind the policy – that imprisoning children in the United States will dissuade oppressed families from attempting to come here – is not only morally dubious; it is simply untrue. The very researchers that government officials cite in support of their policy have rejected it. 

The policy hurts American taxpayers as well. Detaining families will cost nearly $300 per detainee per day. By contrast, alternatives to detention that have been proven to work — such as community-based support programs and case management — cost just $7 to $17 per detainee per day. The savings from closing just one family detention facility would be roughly $250 million every year.

Along with many of my colleagues, I have called on the Administration to end this policy and begin processing these families in a manner consistent with American values. I will be introducing legislation that would end the detention of asylum-seeker families with children if no family member poses a threat to the public or a flight risk. If an immigration judge determines a child or primary caretaker must be detained, they will be detained. If not, they must be released. This legislation should be considered as an important part of a comprehensive immigration reform measure, addressing other vitally important issues. 

America has come a long way since the days when General Patton rejected the humanity of asylum-seekers. The recent explosion in family detention is counter to the progress we have made and unacceptable for a nation of laws that is also a nation of immigrants. Congress must act to fix it.

Blumenthal is Connecticut’s senior senator, serving since 2011. He sits on the Armed Services; the Commerce, Science and Transportation; the Judiciary; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.