Immigrant Family Detention: A Failed Experiment

Immigrant family detention is an ineffective process that further traumatizes children and adults fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. Not only does family detention further damage the physical and mental health of immigrant families, but it costs the United States a great deal in comparison to alternative programs, impedes detainees’ access to counsel, and violates the United States’ obligations under international law.

On June 20, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a set of plans to tackle illegal immigration at the southern border. These plans, a reaction to the surge of immigration that summer from Central America, included the detention of immigration families. Reinstituting a practice that the US had all but abandoned in 2009, the Obama Administration sharply increased the capacity of detention centers for immigrant women and children. In one year, capacity for immigrant family detention in the US increased from 95 beds to 3,700.[1]

Since 2014, the policy of detaining immigrant families has received a great deal of criticism from human rights organizations as well as members of congress. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has stated that “Leader Pelosi believes it is long past time to end family detention,” adding that “Family detention centers are inappropriate for jailing refugee children and mothers fleeing persecution and violence.” In addition Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, has said in a statement, “The individuals being detained with their children have committed no crime under our laws and are seeking asylum. They ought to be treated with compassion.” To the joy of such critics, On July 24, 2015, Judge Dolly M Gee of the Federal District Court for the Central District Court of California found that the family detention facilities do not meet the minimum requirements for housing children and ordered that the children be released from the facilities with the parent that accompanied them without unnecessary delay.

The Obama Administration has pushed back against this decision, asking Judge Gee to reconsider. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has announced that it will begin releasing immigrant families and will decrease the amount of time that families stay in the facilities. While the facilities have started to release current detainees, new ones are taking their place and continue to be held for extended periods of time. On Thursday, August 13, a group of immigrants’ rights lawyers stated in a filing to Judge Gee that detention facilities continue to provide woefully inadequate health treatment and that immigrants continue to stay in the facilities for lengthy periods of time. Despite the government’s claim that its facilities are appropriate for housing children and that they are quickly moving families out of the facilities, the filing explains that officials at the detention centers regularly delay the screening and processing of asylum claims, hinder access to counsel, and set bonds too high for families to meet.

By detaining individuals—particularly children—who have recently experienced traumatic situations such as gang or domestic violence, family detention can have the effect of worsening the trauma that these families have already suffered. This trauma can damage the mental and physical health of immigrants, even when they are only detained for a short period of time. Children detained at the Artesia detention center were reported as experiencing weight loss, gastro-intestinal problems, suicidal thoughts, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.[2] In fact, multiple suicide attempts have been reported at family detention facilities, the most recent of which occurred early this summer by a teenage mother at the Karnes detention center. In a March 2015 report, Juan Mendez, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment wrote that “Even very short periods of detention can undermine a child’s psychological and physical well-being and compromise cognitive development.”[3]

Being in detention also strictly limits individuals’ access to counsel. Studies show that about 80% of detained immigrants do not have a lawyer.[4] Without a lawyer, it is virtually impossible for immigrants to navigate the incredibly convoluted—and unnecessarily so—asylum process. A study carried out by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that 98.5% of immigrant women with children who do not have a lawyer are deported.[5]

Family detention centers are located far away from urban areas where most lawyers and advocacy organizations are located. In addition, the operators of the facilities make it particularly difficult for attorneys to represent their clients. Lawyers at the Artesia detention facility found no place to conduct confidential meetings with clients. Attorneys representing clients at such facilities have also complained of delays in permission to meet with clients and bars on technology necessary for attorneys to provide efficient and effective legal services. An attorney from Human Rights Firs volunteering at the Dilley detention center described that the regulations to enter and provide representation at the facility changed every day, imposing unnecessary burdens on lawyers and causing stress for immigrant families seeking representation.[6]

The negative effects of immigrant family detention reach beyond the families in question. Immigrant detention costs the United States $1.99 Billion every year,[7] and an additional $345.3 million is spent on the increase in family detention.[8] In comparison, alternatives to detention—other programs that work to ensure that immigrants appear for their court dates—are estimated to cost between 17 cents and $17 a day. A 2013 study found that these alternative programs have a 99.6% appearance rate for immigration court hearings. [9]

Immigrant family detention also violates US obligations under international law. Article 31(1) of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees prohibits states from penalizing refugees and asylum seekers for entering the country illegally. Article 31(2) prevents states from restricting the movement of refugees and asylum seekers unless such restriction is necessary. Because affordable and effective alternatives to detention exist, the US’s current policy of detaining immigrants without a criminal record or any other indication that they would be a threat to United States residents is unnecessary. The US’s policy of detaining immigrant families in order to deter further illegal immigration also runs counter to US international obligations, as the UNHCR’s guidelines on the detention of asylum seekers state that detention with the purpose of deterring others from entering the country to seek asylum is “inconsistent with international norms.”

Rather than using the harmful system of immigrant family detention, the US should implement alternatives to detention in order to ensure that immigrant families appear for their court dates. Such alternatives include ankle-monitoring systems, unannounced or announced home visits, employer verification, and in-person reporting. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should also utilize community support programs, which provide referrals to legal and social service organizations to non-detained immigrants. These support programs help immigrants—who often do not speak English—understand their legal obligations and improve court appearance rates. Organizations such as the American Jail Association, the American Bar Association, the Heritage Foundation, and many others recommend these types of alternatives to detention as cost-savings techniques. These alternatives to detention are widely used in the US criminal justice system, but immigrants who have not committed any crime are not provided the same opportunity.

The Obama Administration should end its policy of detaining immigrant families that have no history of criminal activity and pose no threat to US communities. Immigrant family detention is a misguided policy decision implemented in a moment of crisis and which has proven to have negative effects on asylum seekers, while wasting an exorbitant amount of money. Instead, the US should utilize alternatives to detention, which have proven effective and far less expensive. The United States should empty immigration family detention facilities and treat the families who cross our borders fleeing horrible violence in a manner that is respectful and just.


Elena Vazquez (’18) is a sophomore at Yale University.



[1] US Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One- Year Update. Washington, DC: Human Rights First, 2015. Print. P. 7.

[2] “Stop Detaining Families.” National Immigrant Justice
Center, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2015. <>.

[3] US Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One- Year Update. Washington, DC: Human Rights First, 2015. Print. P. 9.

[4] US Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One- Year Update. Washington, DC: Human Rights First, 2015. Print. P. 14.

[5] US Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One- Year Update. Washington, DC: Human Rights First, 2015. Print. P. 14.

[6] US Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One- Year Update. Washington, DC: Human Rights First, 2015. Print. P. 15.

[7] Alternatives to Immigration Detention: Less Costly and More Humane than Federal
Lock-Up. Washington, DC: ACLU, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2015. <> P. 1.

[8] US Detention of Families Seeking Asylum: A One- Year Update. Washington, DC: Human Rights First, 2015. Print. P. 1.

[9] Alternatives to Immigration Detention: Less Costly and More Humane than Federal
Lock-Up. Washington, DC: ACLU, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2015. <> P. 2.


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