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Detention in America: With liberty and justice for all

Central American children face life-threatening conditions on their journey to the United States’ border in order to escape persecution and threats of death. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the U.S. border, these children and families are often incarcerated in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jail-like facilities—sometimes for over a year—and many face difficult conditions on their road to lawfully applying for asylum in the U.S.  

As chair and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, it was clear that it was our agency’s duty to investigate the reports that children and families suffered mistreatment at the hands of our government and the reports of abuses and poor conditions that many immigrants faced at our border stations and detention facilities. Through a hearing, expert witness testimony, and a commissioner fact-finding mission to Karnes Immigration Family Detention Center, Karnes City, Texas and the Port Isabel Immigration Detention Center, Los Fresnos, Texas, we found truth to many of the troubling stories we heard.  

{mosads}While in DHS custody, families are sometimes held in unjustifiably cold and overly crowded detention cells, not given proper medical care for legitimate and possibly deadly diseases or ailments, and not given an opportunity to shower or cleanse themselves in some instances. There are also reports of detainees being beaten and sexually abused by guards and detention officials in private facilities contracted by DHS. There is evidence that some guards are dissuading detainees from reporting unlawful conduct through threats of abuse.   

As mandated by law, we delivered our findings and recommendations to the president and Congress in our Statutory Enforcement Report—The State of Civil Rights at Immigration Detention Facilities. The Commission report concluded that the government is not complying with legal requirements and standards in many of its detention facilities and a deeper investigation is needed into allegations of abuse and mistreatment in all of the government’s immigration detention facilities. 

But most urgently, the Commission recommends that the government should immediately release from detention families and children in order to remain within the bounds of the law and within our principles as a nation. 

The issue of mistreatment of children and families is not new and our findings are consistent with a recent federal court decision ordering the release of women and children from detention facilities. Non-governmental organizations seeking an end to these abuses and the incarceration of children and families, filed a lawsuit against DHS. In August, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the DHS family detention policy violates long-standing policies on humane treatment for children as set by a 1997 legal settlement known as the Flores settlement.  

In addition to our report, the Commission sent a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and DHS Secretary Johnson this week, strongly recommending that our government comply with Flores legal requirements for the treatment of children and families and end family detention. The government should immediately reverse the family detention policies and dismantle the facilities it instituted last year, and immediately release accompanied children and other detained children together with their parents. This court case is an opportunity to uphold basic American values, restore access to protection from persecution and access to justice for the thousands of women and children fleeing violence and seeking refuge at our borders. 

All people deserve to be treated with basic respect and dignity. Our failure to protect the rights of these individuals and families injures not only them as individuals, but injures us as a nation.  We must act boldly to end family detention and provide more appropriate alternatives to detention.  

Castro is chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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