House Dems push DHS to end 'jail-like' family detention

House Dems push DHS to end 'jail-like' family detention

House Democrats, backed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), are pushing hard for the Department of Homeland Security to end its program of holding illegal immigrant families in “jail-like” detention centers.

“We believe your department has not fully grasped the serious harm being inflicted upon mothers and their children in custody,” said a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson signed by 135 lawmakers on Wednesday.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 2014, the DHS ramped up its practice of holding immigrant families in detention facilities amid an influx of 60,000 families arriving at the Mexican border. But lawmakers are concerned about reports of inhumane living conditions at these facilities in Berks County, Pa.; Dilley, Texas; and Karnes, Texas.

In addition to limited freedom and access to healthcare, the members said women and children are suffering psychological health effects from being detained while waiting for their cases to be adjudicated in immigration courts.

Lawmakers said the detained population is largely made up of refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries.

“We have heard horrific stories of sexual assault, intense physical violence, kidnapping and sex trafficking,” their letter said. “These stories come not only from adult mothers, but also from young children who have been victims of such abuse.”

Detaining children who have already been victims of abuse, they said, exacerbates the past trauma and can have serious, long-lasting impacts on psychological health. 

DHS claims the program is designed to deter other immigrants from entering the country illegally, but a federal court in D.C. rejected that argument earlier this year.

In their letter, the lawmakers cited RILR v Johnson, in which the court issued a preliminary injunction to stop DHS from detaining asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America for the purpose of deterring other migrants from entering the country.

“We believe it is undeniable that detention in a secure facility is detrimental to mothers and children and is not reflective of our values as a nation,” their letter said.

The letter was spearheaded by Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), and Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.) who publicly called on DHS to end the program earlier this week.

 Marsha Catron, a DHS spokeswoman, said the well-being of detained families, particularly children, is of “paramount importance” to the agency and DHS has enhanced its oversight of family residential centers.

"ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] family residential centers currently operate in an open environment that includes play rooms, social workers, educational services, comprehensive medical care, and access to legal counsel,” Catron said.  “ICE will explore ways to further enhance these conditions.”

Canton said ICE and DHS will explore ways to make further improvements, but family residential centers serve as an important part of the U.S. government’s comprehensive response to the unprecedented spike in illegal migration at the Rio Grande Valley that occurred last summer. 

“Family residential centers are an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries,” she said. “ICE remains committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner.” 

This story was updated at 5 p.m.