In 2007 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service on behalf of 26 immigrant children, ages 1 to 17, detained with their parents at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. The lawsuit contended the former medium security prison managed by the Corrections Corporation of America did not meet the minimum standards for housing minors in federal immigration custody.
Although ICE released all 26 children before the settlement, the lawsuit alleged the children were kept in cells 11 or 12 hours a day and required to wear prison garb, plus were denied bathroom privacy and access to medical care.
The children were detained with their parents because of a 2006 policy change by ICE. Before then, ICE followed a “catch and release” strategy that transported undocumented Mexicans back across the boarder while immigrants and asylum seekers from other countries were first processed, then released, to await their hearing. ICE detained only those with criminal records. Today it holds 30,000 people on any given day, approximately 300,000 in a year with an average detention stay of 37 days, but with many detained for months or even years before the conclusion of their hearing.
The attitude toward immigrants shifted after 9/11 when undocumented workers or those who overstayed their visas were gradually defined as threats to national security. Responsibility for immigration enforcement passed from the Justice Department to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In 2004 Congress authorized ICE to triple the number of detention beds for immigrants.
“Detention centers” are so called because detainees are not being held on criminal charges, but for civil offenses. The 26 children detained at Hutto “in almost all cases, were awaiting determinations on their asylum claims,” according to the ACLU. They arrived in the U.S. without proper documents after having fled their home countries fearing persecution from their own governments.
While some see immigrant detention furthering homeland security, undeniably it represents a boon to private corporations and local governments. Of the $15 billion-plus DHS budgets for immigration, at least $1.2 billion pays for immigrant detention. Prison corporations and local governments lobby for contracts to fill prison beds paying per diems from $70 to $95 for each immigrant imprisoned. The record profits earned by prison corporations and the revenue generated for rural counties reflect the new political economy of immigration that reduces people to commodities.
Immigration officials defend family detention saying it guarantees immigrants and asylum seekers appearing for hearings and prevents them from fleeing the country. Separating the children from the parents would also introduce additional problems with foster care or locating relatives. The U.S. currently has three family detention centers with plans for three more.
Yet, ICE initiated an alternative pilot program without incarceration in 2004 that produced a 94 percent appearance rate. The program involved people facing deportation getting intensive supervision and connecting to social service agencies. Agency specialists were assigned a limited caseload of detainees that they monitored by home visits and telephone calls. No detention, families intact. Cost: $14 per detainee per day.
This approach reflects the 2003 joint statement, “Strangers No Longer,” of the Mexican and American Catholic bishops: “Those who flee wars and persecution should be protected by the global community. This requires, at a minimum, that migrants have a right to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority” (#37). Given this alternative, people of faith can ask for a creative solution for the sake of the children.
Rev. John S. Rausch is a Catholic priest who serves the communities of the Appalachian region of the United States.