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Family detention is not the solution to family separation

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Like millions of Americans, we were shocked and saddened by the disturbing images and videos of young kids in cells and cages, separated from their mothers and fathers. As law enforcement leaders representing Houston, Texas, and Storm Lake, Iowa, we and many of our colleagues were especially appalled by a morally bankrupt and strategically misguided attempt to deter future migration. 

And while both of us were somewhat relieved that President Trump reversed course and signed an executive order ending family separation policy, we are speaking out to make it crystal clear that family detention is not the solution to family separation.

{mosads}We can — and we must — protect our communities while upholding America’s values. What is happening at the border is also spreading fear, confusion, and pressure in immigrant communities across our country, which is driving large numbers of our community members and neighbors deeper into the shadows. This translates into more targets for would-be criminals, more difficult environments for police to do our work, and an erosion of police-community relations in cities large and small.


There are multiple alternatives to family detention. That is why we, along with over 50 other law enforcement leaders, signed on to a Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force letter to congressional leadership, calling on them to examine proven, effective alternatives to family detention that also ensure families attend immigration hearings and required check-ins.

Regulated and mandated check-ins with law enforcement, telephonic communication, connecting families with social service providers, or in the most extreme cases electronically monitoring some individuals: These viable alternatives balance safety and compassion.

Studies show that asylum seekers are especially responsive, and around 90 percent of children attend immigration proceedings when a lawyer is present. Indeed, the Family Case Management pilot program, terminated last year, kept families out of detention while successfully getting them to hearings more than 99 percent of the time. 

Simply put, immigrant families are not threats to national security. Even ignoring its questionable legality, detaining entire families does not make our communities safer. What it does is make children suffer. Detention can lead to alcoholism, depression, and substance abuse. It runs the risk of breeding a generation of youth with deep trauma and abhorrence for the United States. 

As police chiefs, we know that kids who are traumatized today are the young adults who have run-ins with law enforcement tomorrow. In Houston, Storm Lake, and other American cities, criminal justice policies already support using alternatives in pre-trial. There’s a reason the juvenile justice system is designed around keeping families together. 

Alternatives to detention not only protect and preserve individual dignity, they save taxpayer dollars. In fiscal 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) average cost of detaining an immigrant in immigration detention is more than $200 daily, while the average daily cost of detaining a person in a specialized family detention is more than $300. Alternatives to detention cost only around $5 or $6 per person. And none of the alternatives involve detaining toddlers, taking children away from their mothers, or espousing a policy that runs counter to longstanding American values. 

We go to work every day to protect the rule of law. We believe in safe communities and a strong border. But we also believe in a country that is compassionate.

After years of public service, we never imagined turning on the television and seeing children living under tents and in cages, far away from family. We never imagined seeing mothers and fathers locked up, with no idea what would happen tomorrow. 

To us, enforcing the law still means making sure kids are able to walk to school in a safe community, play without fear of harm in their surroundings, and most importantly, return home safely every night.

What’s best for families is still what’s best for our country and the safety of all Americans. That means embracing proven alternatives to detaining children and families in what amounts to family jails. 

Art Acevedo is chief of police in Houston, Texas.  

Mark Prosser is the director of public safety in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Tags Border Patrol child separation Donald Trump family detention Immigration

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