This week, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CHRCL) asked a federal judge to order the government to comply with the Flores settlement and appoint an independent monitor to oversee the Obama Administration’s ongoing family detention policy.
Flores is a nationwide settlement reached in 1997, under which the government agreed that children taken into immigration custody would be placed in the “least restrictive setting appropriate to [their] age and special needs” and would be released “without unnecessary delay,” preferably to a parent. The settlement also requires that if a parent or other adult relative or appropriate guardian is unavailable, children must be promptly placed in non-secure facilities licensed for the care of dependent children. However, the complaint alleges that the immigration agencies are holding children for weeks or months in unlicensed, secure detention facilities comingled with hundreds of unrelated adults in direct violation of the settlement.
CHRCL’s latest motion to enforce the Flores settlement includes declarations collected by the American Immigration Council and other partner organizations from CARA Pro Bono Project. These declarations attest to the deplorable conditions in Customs and Border Protection holding facilities, as well as the rampant violations of the rights of children and mothers detained by the Obama Administration in family detention facilities.
Mental health expert, Dr. Luis H. Zayas, the Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, wrote in his declaration:
“[T]he literature shows that children in detention suffer deprivation and constant threat, they feel constant sadness and fear (Mares & Zwi, 2015) and live without a sense of what their futures hold. Complicating the children’s development are the disrupted family roles and dynamics in which children see their mothers treated very poorly by staff and witnessing their mothers’ vulnerability and helplessness. Children need the security and protection of their parents and the conditions of detention militate against mothers’ capacity to provide that kind of comfort for their children.”
To this point, a 13-year-old boy being held at the Berks family detention facility shared his own personal story in a declaration:
“Recently I suddenly got very tired and my heart started pounding and really hurting like someone was hitting me. I felt like I blacked out. I had a hard time breathing. They took me to see a doctor here at the Berks detention center. My mother said my lips were purple. The doctor said I was close to having a heart attack. The doctor told my mother that the stress made me like that. I think being detained here for so long caused this incident. I am exhausted and totally stressed. They never took me to the hospital. I am afraid it will happen again. I am too worried to eat properly.”
The American Immigration Council’s Family Detention Fellow, Lindsay Harris, who visited families in detention, wrote in her declaration:
“A five-year-old boy transferred from Karnes to Berks was vaccinated for varicella (chicken pox) at the Berks facility, despite being vaccinated as an infant. He developed chicken pox two days after the vaccination and he and his mother were held in medical isolation for a week. The mother describes how her son seems depressed, has stopped playing with other children, has become quiet, wants to go and says that he is in prison.”
These are but two examples of scores that demonstrate the injustice of holding children, as young as babies, in immigration detention. Beyond the fact of their confinement under inadequate conditions, the Administration is also violating the most basic due process rights of these children and mothers. In particular, the evidence demonstrates that:
- ICE and CBP officers routinely fail to advise detained children of their rights under the Flores
- DHS fails to make or record efforts to release or place detained children with family members.
- Detained children not promptly released are not brought before immigration judges for custody review hearings.
- Detention of children undermines and frustrates access to counsel.
Outside of the Flores litigation, but in the same vein, this week, 69 mothers detained at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas released a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement pleading for release dates for their families. In the letter and accompanying testimonials, the mothers describe the impact of their prolonged detention on themselves and their children, including deep depression, “suicidal thoughts, prolonged insomnia and loss of appetite, and a sense of desperation.”
As the latest filing in Flores and the letter from these 69 mothers show, the Administration is not only out of compliance with the terms of a binding settlement agreement, but also moving forward with a dangerous model of family detention that tramples the most basic rights and needs of vulnerable children and their mothers.