In 2009, the Obama Administration ended family detention at the infamous T. Don Hutto jail in Texas and cut the number of immigrants in family detention to less than a hundred. However, after the surge of Central American migrants last summer, the Administration reinstituted the appalling practice of family detention, with plans to detain 2,760 mothers and children. The Administration justified its reversal as a means to deter future migrants from coming to the United States. Yet, detaining mothers and children to deter others not only violates international and U.S. law—it doesn’t work. A recent International Detention Coalition policy brief, “Does Detention Deter?,” as well as a recent Detention Watch Network policy brief, “Ending the Use of Immigration Detention to Deter Migration” confirm this.

IDC’s brief summarizes studies that show, among other things, that “there is no empirical evidence to suggest that the threat of being detained deters irregular migration, or more specifically, discourages persons from seeking asylum.” A person generally does not choose to flee to another country based on the policies of the destination country. Rather, an asylum seeker’s destination is more likely determined by his or her personal situation or the circumstances of the flight.

Sadly, restrictions on migration and asylum policy “have only managed to add to the human suffering without any real impact on migration flows.” Detention leads to higher rates of PTSD, anxiety and depression, which cannot easily be reversed, and in turn create a burden on society. IDC’s report thus undermines the rationale behind the Administration’s use of family detention.

Moreover, this Administration’s policy is unlawful. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Detention Guidelines explicitly state that “detention policies aimed at deterrence are generally unlawful under international human rights law, as they are not based on an individual assessment as to the necessity to detain.” As to U.S. law, a federal court on February 20, 2015 blocked DHS from “considering deterrence as a factor in detention,” on similar grounds. That court also found that DHS presented little empirical evidence that its detention policy “even achieves its only desired effect,” i.e. deterrence, and cited the “critical role” that Central American violence plays in causing migration. Still, a week after that court’s decision, the government used the same deterrence argument in litigation to justify the detention of migrant children.

There is no legal, moral, national security, or other rational justification for family detention. IDC’s and DWN’s papers, and court decisions, increasingly make that clear. Meanwhile, there are other effective, humane, and economically feasible alternatives to family detention. Community based programs are both cost effective and effective in ensuring compliance with immigration proceedings. It is time for the Administration to stop the incarceration of families.

Photo by Sri Harsha.

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