When the Trump administration implemented mass family separation in 2018, the American public was outraged. Two years later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is using a different strategy with the risk of a similar result. The agency is now forcing parents at its family detention centers to choose between separation from their children or the family’s indefinite detention.
In past years, asylum-seeking families arriving at the border were transferred to one of three ICE family detention centers, where collectively over 3,000 people can be held at a time. Now, due to a combination of current border programs, most families are deported or returned to Mexico without ever reaching these facilities. The most recent of these Trump administration policies uses the pandemic as an excuse to immediately turn away asylum seekers.
Still, 185 children are currently held with their parents at family detention centers in Dilley, Texas; Karnes City, Texas; and Leesport, Pennsylvania. Many of these families have already been locked up for at least five months.
Lawyers around the country have filed lawsuits arguing that ICE should release people in detention due to the risk of spreading coronavirus infection in ICE facilities, where social distancing is largely impossible and personal protective equipment is lacking.
One of those lawsuits resulted in a court order for ICE to do everything possible to release children. Another has resulted in a similar order that would also include their parents. A federal judge required ICE to provide an update on releases of the children by May 15.
According to recent reports from attorneys for the detained families, on May 13 and 14, ICE gave the parents a “binary choice:” agree for their child to be released without them or waive the child’s right to release under the longstanding Flores settlement that governs custody of immigrant children.
ICE subsequently reported to the court that it planned to continue to detain almost all of the children, stating “parent did not wish to separate” as a reason in every case. Health experts agree that both family separation and prolonged detention cause significant physical and emotional harm to children. For years, parents have reported inadequate medical care at all three family detention centers.
The coronavirus pandemic presents additional health risks to detention. One model predicted that a COVID-outbreak in detention could spread to 72% to 100% of those detained in the facility within 90 days. Families’ attorneys report that ICE isn’t doing enough to protect against spread of the virus. They also say symptomatic people are going untested.
Beyond the cruelty of this latest version of the binary choice policy, its implementation was an extreme violation of due process.
Parents report being coerced into signing documents without knowing what they said. They were not given details on what would happen to their child after the separation. Parents weren’t told whether separation could mean they would later be deported without their child. Some stated that they did not know which option they were choosing by obeying instructions to sign.
Many of the parents asked to speak to their attorneys but ICE refused. ICE did not notify attorneys of the conversations. It has since refused them copies of the documents that officials asked their clients to sign.
The Trump administration has long wanted to circumvent restrictions on the detention of children. The current version of the binary choice policy is similar to one implemented in 2018.
Parents who had been separated from their children were given the choice to be reunited and deported with their child, or for the child to remain in the United States without them. A lawsuit led to ICE adding a third option to speak to a lawyer. After months of detention, many families were eventually able to challenge their deportations and remain in the United States together. The administration seriously considered implementation of the policy again last year.
Both family separation and the detention of children are harmful and cruel, even without the added danger of the coronavirus pandemic. The overwhelming majority of families have someone ready to receive them in the United States, and non-profit organizations have processes in place to safely welcome the few who do not. Community-based alternatives to detention are a cheaper, more humane option and have been shown to have high court appearance rates.
The government should release families together so that they can be with their loved ones and continue their immigration case outside of detention.
FILED UNDER: covid-19, family separation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement