Family Detention: Are We Repeating the Mistakes of Hutto?

Photo courtesy of Peter Haden.

Photo courtesy of Peter Haden.

While much recent media attention has focused on the influx of 62,998* unaccompanied Central American children seeking refuge in the U.S., the number of family border crossings has spiked as well. In fact, recent reports from Customs and Border Protection show that the number of family units apprehended in 2014 has reached over 62,000,* which is a 471% spike from the previous year. Earlier in the year, images circulated of large groups of women and children migrants being dropped off at bus stops in major cities and told to appear in immigration court on an assigned date. Such images drew attention to the lack of capacity of federal agencies to deal with the massive numbers of immigrants, and resulted in calls for the Obama administration to take action. One part of the administration’s response, a return to the use of family detention, has not been awarded as much attention and deserves the public’s concern.

In June, the administration announced its plan of action, which included the expansion of family detention with a request for an additional 6,300 beds. Family detention centers, which are often described as “prison like,” are operated by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and house both children and parents that are apprehended at the border as well as those apprehended within the U.S. The centers have been criticized for criminalizing migrants, most of whom are Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, and Honduran “mothers with very young children who are fleeing for their lives,” and limiting access to legal services that they need in order to move through the asylum claims process.

The first family detention center, a small center set for expansion later this year, opened in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2001. At the time, if they weren’t released, children and parents awaiting immigration hearings were separated, with children sent to shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and parents in immigration jails. This practice was widely criticized, and after Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop separating families, the DHS response was the expansion of the family detention program with the 2006 opening of the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Texas. The center was soon the subject of a lawsuit, filed by the ACLU and several other groups on behalf of 26 immigrant children, containing allegations of abuse and unsanitary conditions. Among the claims of the lawsuit were reports of young children forced to wear prison uniforms, families housed in small jail cells, poor medical care, and guards threatening separation from parents as punishment for “bad” behavior. Over 100 faith, civil rights, civil liberties, and immigrant rights organizations signed a joint letter calling on DHS to shut down Hutto and end family detention for good. In 2007, the ACLU won the case, leading to drastic improvements in conditions. The federal government changed Hutto to a women-only center in 2009, and the family detention program was effectively dead.

While most Americans are not aware of the history of family detention, the general consensus by researchers, medical professionals, and human rights groups, legal advocates, and immigrant rights groups is that the practice of family detention is inhumane, expensive, and detrimental to children and parents. Congress has affirmed and reaffirmed that family detention goes against its intent, and in 2007 made statements encouraging ICE to “avoid detention of families and expressing its alarm over the use of family detention.” Prominent research institutions have published reports on the well-documented effects of detention on children’s psychological wellbeing, arguing that family detention should never be considered in a child’s best interest. Because children have specialized health, educational, and legal needs, child advocates argue that any housing that includes children should be specialized as well. Upon the closing of Hutto in 2009, NGOs, Congress, and international bodies were much in agreement that family detention is inhumane, ineffective, unsafe, and expensive.

Despite this recent history, approximately 1,100 family detention beds have been opened in the two months following Obama’s June request. A large center opened in a border enforcement training campus in Artesia, New Mexico in June. The center, which houses more than 600 women and children apprehended in South Texas, is located in the desert more than 200 miles from a major city. This summer, representatives of immigration rights and legal advocacy organizations were allowed to tour the facility, and many returned with serious concerns about the lack of legal, medical, and social services available to detainees. Parents have reported weight loss in young children as well as difficulty procuring medical services and sanitary supplies. Because of its remote location, detainees are typically given a list of only three legal service providers, and court cases are held via teleconferencing.

A representative of Human Rights Watch reportedly “observed serious barriers to a full and fair process for making effective asylum claims.” Attorneys have reported that there is no protocol for entering the center and “no means to file even basic court documents.” Compounding these barriers is the Obama administration’s institution of expedited removal in order to process and deport detainees as quickly as possible. While funds have been put towards increasing the numbers of immigration judges and installing teleconferencing systems, the emphasis is on speed rather than due process— a fact made more obvious by the scarcity of legal support for Artesia’s detainees. There is approximately one pro bono attorney for every 120 detainees, and many go through proceedings alone because they cannot find an attorney quickly enough. Even if they do find an attorney, the expedited removal process leaves little time for building a case for asylum. One lawyer told the New York Times that Artesia is like “a big deportation mill in the middle of no where.” In just a month, 209 migrants were deported from the center- some reportedly in the middle of the night.

The expansion of the family detention program continued with the opening of a center in Karnes City, near San Antonio, Texas, on August 1st. The center, which has 532 beds, is run by much-criticized private prison company Geo Group. In an attempt to counter complaints about Artesia, Karnes is touted by DHS as a model facility with soccer fields and dorm-style bedrooms. Local news outlets have reported on Karnes softening its image to become a “family friendly environment,” where detainees are referred to as “residents” and will have access to exercise equipment, visitation, cable televisions, and a computer lab. Immigrant rights advocates lack confidence in the ability of DHS to scale up the family detention model in humane, safe ways, and express cynicism toward efforts to play up the positives at Karnes. In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, a San Antonio immigration attorney stated that she sees Karnes as a “detention center with a smiley face. From the outside, it looks like a high school. It doesn’t have the same prison-like exterior that most detention facilities have. But make no mistake, it is a prison.”

Despite positive reports from a media tour of Karnes, organizations such as Grassroots Leadership, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Detention Watch Network, and the ACLU are now reviving campaigns against family detention that they ended in 2009, and fear that “we risk repeating the mistakes from Hutto” if the expansion of family detention continues. They are challenged to attract the public’s concern; most are also calling for humane treatment and due process for the unaccompanied minors who have received so much attention and debate.

The story of lone children seeking refuge tends to illicit sympathy and a compassionate response, while the public debate around undocumented adult immigrants is less fresh and tends to be more divisive even when their children are involved. The strength of the campaign against family detention, however, lies in the strong research and examples demonstrating the effectiveness of alternatives to detention. These alternatives, many at minimal cost to the government, include supervised release, ankle monitoring, bond, and case management. Many of these programs are already in use, and studies have proven that individuals awaiting trials do tend to appear in court under these programs. For example, ankle monitors, while found by studies to be overused and burdensome to participants, have been highly effective, with nearly 100 percent of participants appearing for court dates. Funds could also be used for social workers and case managers under such models, which have been well-tested and researched.

Despite the persistent litany of immigrant rights groups arguing for community-based alternatives, family detention continues to grow. Many argue that history and research have already shown us that family detention, in all forms, is a part of a worst-case scenario for the U.S. immigration system, and that “there is simply no humane way to detain children and families.” However, if centers like Karnes and Artesia continue to open and expand across the country, these groups may gear up for a big fight all over again in order to prevent history from repeating itself.

* FY 2014 as of July 31, 2014


  1. […] by the Geo Group, manages prisons and mental health hospitals and was described by one writer as “a prison with a smiley face.” It is “total chaos” inside, according to one attorney’s report: mothers are interviewed […]


  2. […] and families, many of whom are fleeing horrific domestic violence, are being held in questionable family detention centers in New Mexico and Texas, often in inhumane conditions and with limited access to legal counsel.  […]


  3. […] at the southern U.S. border this year, the Obama administration has rapidly increased its use of family detention for the first time in many years, leading critics to denounce both the conditions in which these […]


  4. […] Much like the attempts to deter the Central American women and children of the present through increased detention and reducing asylum protections, Johnson reports that the former Immigration and Naturalization […]


  5. […] and advocates have long condemned the administration’s decision to reinstate a policy of family detention, a practice that advocates assert is inhumane, particularly given the lucrative contracts awarded […]


  6. […] with open arms, women and children fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are detained, put into fast-tracked removal proceedings in immigration court, and subject to raids on their […]


  7. […] case I’ve previously written about is the legal fight to end the detention of immigrant families, mostly women and children fleeing violence in Central America. Advocates for […]


  8. […] in 2014 revived a policy of family detention that had previously been all but abolished in 2009.  The two largest immigrant family detention centers in the country are located in Texas – the […]


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